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The Toadstool Millionaires:
A Social History of Patent Medicines
in America before Federal Regulation

Chapter 9: St. George and the Dragon

James Harvey Young, PhD

"They can talk about Shakespeare, but in my opinion old Hostetter -- and Ayer -- had more influence on the national life than any of 'em."

-- Uncle Henry, in Collier's Weekly

TO draw the line nicely, and fix definitely where the medicine may end and the alcoholic beverage begin, is a task which has often perplexed and still greatly perplexes revenue officers, and especially where a preparation contains so large proportion of alcoholic spirits as yours does.

-- Commissioner of Internal Revenue to
Hostetter & Smith, August 22, 1883 [1]

A modern-day student of history and a modern-day man of business, each interested in his own particular way in the century--old traditions of Hostetter's Bitters, met in Pittsburgh on a spring afternoon [2]. They sat for a while in the Hostetter outer offices, where the paper work was done, chatting about the past. Then the businessman said: "Would you like to taste the Tonic we make today?"

The student agreed, and the businessman led the way through a locked door to a large back room. The air was fragrant with the sweet odor of spices. A huge silvery mixing tank stood near a shelf on which were tumbled a score of volumes concerning pharmacy. Close at hand in a rack were several large glass bottles, each filled with a mixture of herbs resembling rough-cut tobacco. The herbs were slowly yielding up their essences to a small quantity of alcohol, which had been poured over them. In due time this pungent liquid would be drained away through spigots in the bottoms of the bottles and mixed in the silvery tank with the proper proportions of distilled water and cane alcohol. In another corner of the room there rested an aging vat beside a table upon which the small bottles were placed when filled with the final product. On the table were a number of bottles made of amber glass, bearing white labels front and rear. A bright red and dark green message proclaimed the contents, Doctor Hostetter Celebrated Stomachic Bitters Tonic.

The student, surveying the scene, expected the businessman to pick up one of the bottles, procure a spoon, and pour out and present for sampling a prescribed dose of the aromatic stomachic. Not so, however. The businessman got instead a shot glass. After rinsing it at a sink, he filled it to the brim from the spigot on the vat. Then he handed it to the student, who proceeded to taste the warm, mellow, bittersweet potency of the liquid it contained. In similar fashion many before him had sampled the various ver-sions bearing Dr. Jacob Hostetter's name since the first bottles appeared on the market more than a hundred years before.

It was not Dr. Hostetter who had introduced the bitters into commerce, even though this Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, physician had worked out the formula for use in his practice. The business venture was launched by Dr. Jacob's eldest son. David Hostetter was to become a self-made man with a vengeance, but when he first marketed the bitters, he was thirty-four, with a record of nothing but false starts. He had grown up on the family farm. At sixteen he had taken a job as chore boy for a drygoods store, rising during seven years to the status of manager. Then, in partnership with another man, he had opened a drygoods store for himself. Hardly was this venture under way when David succumbed to a violent attack of Gold Rush fever. In April 1850 he went to California, traveling by way of Panama. David did not find a fortune in the gold fields. After a few weeks he returned to San Francisco, feeling that a man with mercantile experience might get more gold by setting up a business in the booming town. He became a grocer. Within a month one of the fires that swept so frequently across the young and flimsy city burned the aspiring grocer out. David went back to Pennsylvania [3],

At home, too, the news was bad. His partner had absconded, leaving the drygoods store deeply in debt. David went to work for some railroad builders, serving as paymaster for the crew installing the Pennsylvania lines around Horseshoe Bend. On this job he met another former resident of Lancaster, a man named George W. Smith. Smith had some capital and the willingness to venture it in marketing a proprietary version of David's father's remedy. So it was that, in 1853, the first bottles of the Celebrated Stomach Bitters were made at Pittsburgh, a city close to the sources of Monongahela rye.

The plant at first was small, the employees few. Some half dozen people concocted the bitters in part of a building that rented for the modest sum of $175 a year. But David was an energetic salesman, and he traveled far and wide. Within the first year he brought home not only many orders, but also a bride, Rosetta, the daughter of a Cincinnati businessman. Domestic bliss and commercial success came hand in hand. By 1857 the bitters partnership was happily forced to move into larger quarters all its own, and by the beginning of the sixties it had become a nationwide advertiser with a trade-mark known from coast to coast. As Hercules had clubbed the Hydra for the Pana-cea of William Swaim, so now St. George slew the Dragon for the Bitters of David Hostetter. Astride a rearing horse, the helmeted but otherwise naked knight plunged his sharp spear down toward the open jaws of the fearsome monster [4].

Hostetter's dragon was a symbol for countless evils. Some of them were once summed up by a rhymester in the partnership's employ.

Dyspepsia's pangs, that rack and grind
The body, and depress the mind;
Agues, that, as they go and come,
Make life a constant martyrdom;
Colics and dysenteric pains,
'Neath which the strong man's vigor wanes;
Bilious complaints -- those tedious ills,
Ne'er conquered yet by drastic pills;
Dread Diarrhea, that cannot be
Cured by destructive Mercury;
Slow constitutional decay,
That brings death nearer, day by day;
Nervous prostration, mental gloom,
Heralds of madness or the tomb;
For these, though Mineral nostrums fail,
Means of relief at last we hail,
HOSTETTER'S BITTERS -- medicine sure,
Not to prevent, alone, but cure. [5]

It was not often that St. George charged forth in such poetic mood; he more often confronted the dragon in plain prose. In one guise or the other, however, the anti-mineral doctrine appeared in Hostetter advertising year after year. The Bible itself furnished texts. "That compend of Divine Wisdom and messenger of glad tidings to the human race," ran one appeal, "says nothing about mercury, antimony, and other mineral irritants as remedies for diseases: but it refers with great emphasis and in at least one hundred passages, to the use of vegetable curatives, and more especially vegetable invigorants." Jeremiah, David, John, and Paul were called upon to testify. This herbal gospel on the part of botanical promoters, of course, was decades old. By the mid-19th century, in the wake of the therapeutic nihilism preached by some regular physicians, there was room for a broader vision. Any rigorous medication, the Hostetter seers asserted, vegetable as well as mineral, was bad. Especially should one eschew "the drenching class of purgatives." [6]

Sweet are the uses of analogy. "Dynamite and giant-powder might answer admirably to remove obstructions from Hell Gate in East River, New York," one Hostetter advertisement sug-gested, "but explosive measures in medication are ever attended with dangerous consequences." Medical violence was not only risky, it was old-fashioned, one of the "follies" persisting in the face of new knowledge. "There are hosts of people who, because they have adopted certain principles, continue to swallow them to their dying day in defiance of the laws of common-sense." Such bullheadedness was stupid. Purging, bleeding, and blistering were on the wane, and a more humane therapeutic day was dawning. Tonics, cordials, and restoratives were receiving enhanced prestige from regular practitioners. The bitters, therefore, were up to date. They had been compounded by a doctor. No other remedy could match their mildness. They were "as harm-less as water from the mountain spring." So ran the therapeutic argument [7].

If there was anything mild about the bitters, it would appear, it was their herbal content. Running an analysis in 1883, a Depart-ment of Agriculture chemist found that the herbal oils and ex-tracts, all in all, amounted to some four per cent of the total product. David Hostetter was not revealing the secret of his formula, but the chemist made a guess. The mixture contained various essential oils, he said, such as those of anise and coriander, and some vegetable bitters, such as cinchona and gentian. Later probers were to name these and suggest other botanical possibilities: orange peel, cloves, cinnamon, rhubarb, calamus, columbo, centaury, serpenteria. Aromatics, tonics, and laxatives such as these, Dr. Hostetter had been able to find in the official pharmaceutical tomes of his day. Countless doctors were prescribing them, often in mixtures, to excite the appetite, to invigorate the digestion, to rid the stomach and bowels of gas, to relieve dys-pepsia, to "exalt the energies of all parts of the frame." But the customary tonic dose dispensed by the regular physician was considerably more generous in its proportion of herbal ingre-dients. Hostetter's four per cent seemed a bit on the stingy side. "An article containing so little that is even nominally medicinal," the Commissioner of Internal Revenue wrote, put him on his guard, especially when he considered what was in the other ninety-six per cent [8].

Sixty-four per cent of Hostetter's Bitters, the chemist had reported, was water, but the other thirty-two per cent was absolute alcohol. Herein lay the reason for the Commissioner's perplexity. For if this high a proportion of alcohol turned the bitters into a beverage, those who sold it would be forced to buy a federal license. And there was evidence that the bitters was, at least occasionally, dispensed in just this way. Up in Sitka, Alaska, Hostetter's potent liquid had been served in saloons by the drink. Bars and stores in the States now and then followed the same practice [9].

Despite "an almost irresistible tendency of the mind to conclude that no genuine medicine needs so much whiskey and so few drugs in it," the Commissioner of Internal Revenue, in 1883, resolved his dilemma by letting the nature of the sale determine the status of the bitters. If it was sold across the counter as a drink, the dispenser would have to pay for a liquor license. If sold in the bottle as a medicine, no alcoholic beverage tax applied. What happened after the bottle was bought was no concern of the Commissioner. "Us kids heard," Carl Sandburg was to remember, "that you could get drunk on one bottle of Hostetter's." Officially, at least, the Commissioner did not listen to such tales [10].

The Commissioner's decision was eminently satisfactory to the proprietor. He had denied fervently, year in and year out, that the bitters was a drink, at the same time, with equal fer-vency, extolling the quality of its alcoholic content. While insisting that the remedy received "its extraordinary and unequalled potency" from its herbal ingredients, Hostetter advertising stressed the presence of the alcoholic "vehicle." Indeed, the compounder was willing to admit to a higher proportion of alcohol -- thirty-nine per cent -- than the Department of Agriculture chemist had discovered in the samples he had analyzed. Nor was this "stimulating basis" the sort of bad liquor which competitors poured into their products. Hostetter's Bitters contained "the pure Essence of Rye." After the proprietor received the spirits from the still, he put them through a complicated process to remove the "acrid and corrosive oils" which tainted other bitters. And there certainly were scores of other bitters with which David Hostetter's product had to compete [11].

During the second half of the 19th century, indeed, America developed a mighty thirst for bitters. The intensity of that thirst unquestionably owed much to the temperance movement. 1851 was a red-letter year for opponents of alcohol, for in that year the legislature of Maine, the first in the Union to take the step, had voted the state completely dry. This was the initial major triumph in a new tack taken by temperance crusaders, the sub-stitution of legislation for persuasion as the main method of their efforts. They would not let up on their campaigning to convince the drinker of the iniquity of his sin, but they would help bolster his resolve with laws forbidding the sale of liquor. As Maine went, so went other New England states, and before the end of the decade all Northern states but one and two states in the South had enacted prohibition laws of greater or less stringency. These laws were badly enforced, but they placed liquor under an additional handicap: drinking could be condemned not only as immoral; it was illegal as well. The price of alcoholic beverages rose, quality declined. On such a battleground, evasionary tactics might be expected. Two years after the enactment of the Maine law, amid the continuing agitation, Hostetter's Bitters had been born [12].

The Hostetter promoters avowed their hearty approval of temperance. During the Civil War they considered it a shame that Union commanders provided troops with common whiskey and quinine as an "invigorant" on the eve of a hard march or dangerous battle. This did "more harm than good," albeit admittedly it was less damaging than the dastardly Rebel practice of prescribing alcohol and gunpowder, which resulted in "delirium for the time being, and the most terrible after-effects." The bitters would be much superior, and the proprietor was sure that the time was not far off when "a humane government" would recognize this fact and "sanction and adopt" them for military use [13].

The chaos of wartime brought a retreat from prohibition, but the temperance forces returned to the attack with redoubled zeal in the postwar world. Hostetter marched with the crusaders. Distilled liquors, he asserted in his almanac for 1869, "richly deserve the stigma that has been cast upon them by the friends of Health and Temperance." This did not mean, of course, that medicines should abandon alcohol. Science did not permit it. Only alcohol could preserve the medicinal properties of vegetable extracts in a fluid state. "Only by a diffusible stimulant [could] the medicinal constituents . . . be conveyed directly to their destination." This was a truth established by the "most eminent Lights of Medical Science" and admitted by the "leading champions of Temperance," the noble editor Horace Greeley among them.

Most of Hostetter's competitors employed a similar pitch. There were others among the bitters crowd, however, who grabbed even more tightly the coattails of temperance advocates and boasted that there was no alcohol at all within their bottles. In an extremely rare instance this was true. Walker's California Vinegar Bitters was almost devoid of alcohol, containing, at least, no higher a proportion than did beer. Walker's laxative liquid, according to a manufacturing pharmacist, was "a villainous, turbid, disgusting sour swill." Such a genuinely temperance bitters angered the proprietors who admitted to having alcohol in their own. The non-alcoholic brands, charged a competitor whose pro-duct was largely rum, were "teetotal humbugs," promoted by "unphilosophical balderdash," and about as therapeutically "effective as bilge water." Most bitters parading under the temperance label, however, though their promoters fervently denied that they contained alcohol, actually did so in substantial amounts. Some half-dozen concoctions advertised as absolutely non-alcoholic -- -indeed, claiming that they were a specific treatment for inebriates -- were in fact forty to eighty proof [14].

"Let me advise you as a friend," wrote Josh Billings in a mock letter to a bitters proprietor, "if it is indispensably necessary to cheat a little in the manufaktur ov the 'Salvashun Bitters' let it bi all means be in the rutes; don't lower the basis." [15]

Many Americans, beset with temperance pressures, agreed with Josh's counsel. Whether they knew it or not, they were interested in the "basis." They took their doses from square bottles, from round bottles, from bottles shaped like cabins, pigs, drums, fish, globes, lighthouses, Indian maidens, and even the bust of President Washington. But the basis was the same. To judge by store ledgers from one state, Mississippi, some families replenished their stock of alcoholic nostrums every day [16].

Doubtless there were many naive and gullible who did not know what they drank. They found themselves afflicted with some of the numerous symptoms listed in the bitters advertising. They sought relief. The warm feeling, the sense of elation following an ample dose, proved that the medicine was seeking out the source of the infirmity. Particularly might this genuine ignorance prevail in the case of temperance devotees purchasing the non-alcoholic bitters, so-called. Other ailing Americans drank Hostetter's and similar bitters, avowedly alcoholic, in a like spirit, seeking health and being convinced by advertising that no herbal essences were really safe unless preserved in Monongahela rye or rum.

For some thirsty Americans the alcoholic bitters were sheer subterfuge. The renewed temperance campaign was taking hold. In 1872 the Prohibition Party first put a national ticket in the field. In 1874 the WCTU began its doughty work. The decade of the eighties witnessed terrific agitation, some statewide legislation, and the drying up of many American communities by local option. In the nineties the pace quickened. The Anti-Saloon League entered the fray. Countless school systems introduced the study of temperance textbooks which used a "scare" psychology not unlike that employed in patent medicine advertising. Areas dry by local option spread. For many who liked their liquor, the opportunity to buy was legally gone. For others, in regions not yet arid, family pressure or neighborhood opinion bore down heavily. For those deprived, one legal and almost respectable recourse was open: the steady pursuit of health through high-proof bitters [17].

Even this effort, however salubrious it may have been, often pricked the conscience. This conclusion may be deduced, per-haps, by an argument from silence. Bitters bottles were sold by the millions, many fabricated in decorative forms with the expectation that they might adorn the mantelpiece and serve as a perennial advertisement. Yet the number of bottles that survive, compared with the vast quantity put upon the market, is amazingly small. A bitters-bottle collector suggests the reason: "The same conscience that was deluded to a belief that bitter tasting stimulants could be imbibed innocently in the guise of medicine turned more honest in a fear of discovery of its peccadilloes, and was impelled to destruction of the evidence of its secret tippling." The proprietor who sought to market a bitters displayed shrewd business sense; in expecting his fancy bottle to end up on the parlor what-not, his judgment was less sound. [18].

David Hostetter stuck to a plain square bottle with high sloping shoulders and a stubby neck. But its contents were potent and palatable, and its sales were very good. In 1859 some 432,000 bottles went out upon the market; three decades later, just after David's death, sales exceeded 930,000. Truly golden years lay in between. To judge from excise stamps purchased from the government between 1862 and 1883, Hostetter's Bitters had an annual average retail sale surpassing $1,000,000 [19].

During these years St. George was indeed a busy knight, but David Hostetter found time to diversify his interests. As his fortunes rose, he became one of the most substantial citizens in Pittsburgh's business community. He helped establish a bank. He played a role in promoting the building of railroads. He was much excited when the first natural gas well was struck not far from Pittsburgh, and he hurried to bring back rubber bags filled with the gas for chemical analysis. David was interested in petroleum also, and he took part in the battling which beset this new and turbulent industry [20].

In his mature years, David Hostetter had a rough-hewn sort of face. He was almost entirely bald, but wore a full and scraggly beard that reached down to his chest. His forehead was high, an impression exaggerated by his lack of hair. His nose was long and straight. His eyes were dark, topped by quizzical brows. He and his family lived in a three-story mansion, ornate with stained glass windows, a circular staircase, and elaborate wood-carved mantelpieces. David was a thoroughly devoted family man. He and Rosetta were parents of five children, one daughter and four sons. Three of the four boys died while still young men [21].

It was David Herbert, the second son, who inherited not only his father's name but also his diligence and capability. He had been taught by private tutors before going to the small local university that later was to bear the city's name. Then, like two of his brothers before him, Herbert had gone abroad to study at Heidelberg. Back in Pittsburgh, he had taken courses at a business college. After a year on a ranch in the West for health and pleasure, he came home to work [22].

The young man had a round face, dark eyes, prominent ears, and thin black hair. He did not imitate his father's long and ragged beard. Instead he wore a large and bushy mustache with curling ends. He was fond of hunting, riding, and yachting, but these pursuits did not detract from an earnest concentration upon business. The first job in his apprenticeship was that of purchasing agent for one of the railroads his father had helped establish. Advancement came quickly. Other tasks were added to Herbert's duties. He was trained well as heir apparent [23].

David Hostetter succumbed to kidney trouble in November 1888. George Smith, his partner, had died four years before. Hostetter left a fortune of some $18,000,000. It had all begun with Dr. Jacob's formula. As a legacy the bitters was to prove equally lucrative. D. Herbert took the helm. In 1889 he formed a corporation with himself as president. All but a fraction of the stock was held by members of the family. There were 900 shares, each worth $100 at par. This sum of $90,000 was larger than the total tangible assets of the new corporation, including the manufacturing and printing plants and all unsold bitters on hand. These assets amounted to $75,510.57. Yet the value of the Hostetter name was worth much more. Few concerns with so small an investment in plant, so modest a capitalization, were selling a product which grossed $500,000 a year. It is hardly any wonder that in the decade that remained before the new century began, the dividends paid by the Hostetter Company, despite a sag caused by the panic of 1893, totaled 850 per cent. Both St. George and Herbert could well be proud [24].

Herbert ran the company much as his father had run the partnership. Large sums were spent for advertising, some to pay for "readers" which printer's devils set in type for insertion in newspapers to the confusion of the public. Looking like news, the "readers" bore such tantalizing heads as "The Devil Fish Described by Hugo," "Which Was It? Bacon or Shakespeare?" and "Put Not Your Faith in Princes," to lure the curious on to the point at which they learned that Hostetter's Bitters were indispensable to health. This was one way of conveying an adver-tising message. There was another way, one upon which Herbert spent nearly $100,000 a year, almost half the total advertising budget. This too was a legacy from David's day, and it consti-tuted the main Hostetter contribution to patent medicine promo-tion. Late in 1860 there had appeared the first edition of Hos-tetter's United States Almanac for the Use of Merchants, Mechanics, Farmers and Planters, and All Families [25].

Patent medicine almanacs were not new in America when David Hostetter entered the field. When they did begin, they joined forces with a long tradition that ran back into the colonial period. The almanac, with its calendar, its amazingly long-range weather predictions, its counsel on when to plant and when to reap, its household hints, its witticisms and its proverbs, ante-dated even Poor Richard. The editors of many of these annual documents were, like Franklin, sound and sober men who looked with disfavor upon quackery. One of them offered this prayer in 1813: "From quack lawyers, quack doctors, quack preachers, mad dogs and yellow fever, good Lord, deliver us!" A policy of antagonism to patent medicines also was evident in certain medical and health almanacs, often edited by doctors, that began to appear in the second decade of the 19th century. If only to defend themselves, one would think, the patent medicine proprietors should have resorted to the same medium. Adept as they usually were at pioneering techniques of appeal to the populace, the nostrum makers were tardy in adopting the almanac. Once started, however, they soon outdistanced the field. Over their predecessors and their non-nostrum competitors, the distributors of patent medicine almanacs had one great advantage. The alma-nacs were free [26].

Who wins the palm for priority is, as with the story of most origins, hard to tell. Some patent medicine men, in the late 1820's, bought space in commercial almanacs to tout their wares. In the 1832 edition of the Farmers and Mechanics Almanac, William Swaim paid for six whole pages to boost his Panacea. A decade was to pass, however, before proprietors began to send forth cover-to-cover almanacs all their own. One of the very first was Bristol's Free Almanac: for 1844, issued from Batavia, New York, in behalf of a sarsaparilla. On the cover stood a naked man, the skin of his abdomen folded back exposing his bowels. Encircling the man were the twelve signs of the zodiac. This feature appeared somewhere in the pages of all almanacs. Few of Bristol's successors, however, were to be so ingenious as he in linking their remedies with diseases prevalent during the passing months. "And now the Dog Star rages," began the text for August. "The fierce heat boils in the veins and channels of life, and turns the ruddy currents of health to poisonous streams that course through the system, and, if not speedily expelled, en-gender a hundred forms of sickness and decay." [27]

Once pioneers like Bristol had paved the way, other nostrum promoters followed the trail. Americans were in for an annual dosage of millions of threatening words and frightening pictures. Before the forties were over, Dr. David Jayne had launched his Medical Almanac and Guide to Health in behalf of an assortment of family medicines, two of which were vermifuges. Staring out at readers with big round eyes was a horrendous tapeworm. Some time during the fifties, the worm turned, assuming a different pose, and presumably a more comfortable one, for he was to hold it unchanged for more than half a century [28]. Long almanac runs were certainly not rare. One of the hardiest, begun in the early fifties, called the world's attention to the Cherry Pectoral and other remedies made by James C. Ayer. Ayer's American Almanacs traveled farther and confronted more ailing folks than any other, even Hostetter's. Full production had not yet been achieved in 1855 when Ayer's copywriters took to parody in order to convey their message, securing a reader impact approxi-mating that of Jayne's worm [29].

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I languished sick and weary,
With a cough that still returning, lungs and stomach rendered sore,
While I groaned, nor thought of napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door:
Only this, and nothing more.

The knocker, it developed in ensuing verses, was "an ancient lady ... whom the neighbors called Aunt Shore," and she be-sought the sufferer to try that "wondrous balsam," Ayer's Cherry Pectoral.

At the word I drew the stopple, to my lips I pressed the bottle,
And adown my ulcered throttle did a swallow smoothly pour,
When straightway a pleasant feeling of repose went softly stealing
Through my worn and weary vitals, which I have not felt before
For full half a year or more.
Then each day I kept imbibing, spite of sceptic's slurs and gibing,
From a Cherry Pectoral bottle, which I kept behind my door;
And my lungs forgot their ailing, and my cheek, which fast was paling,
Soon resumed the pristine lustre, which long before it wore,
In the jolly days of yore.

Toward the end of the century, though there was less poetry in them, there were more Ayer almanacs. The concern was averag-ing $120,000 a year printing some 16,000,000 copies of its various editions. During one year the total may have soared past 25,000,000. In 1889, with the peak not yet reached, the company's own publishing plant had equipment to print, fold, and send to the bindery 100,000 almanacs a day, their presses con-suming some 25 miles of paper in the process. That year Ayer issued almanacs or pamphlets in 21 languages, intended not only to persuade most immigrant groups in the United States but to ship literally around the world. The same medical exhortations appeared in Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian-Danish, Bohemian, Welsh, Italian, Finnish, Turkish, Armenian, Greek, Bulgarian, Polish, Hawaiian, Bur-mese, Chinese, and the Gujarati dialect of India [30].

All the major patent medicine proprietors, and many with a more modest ranking, got in the almanac game. Some strove for attention through novelty-producing a pamphlet the size of a postage stamp, laying heavy emphasis on Shakespeare, hiring the leading humorists of the day to do original pieces. But most followed a fairly traditional format. There were the usual astronomical data, the rising and setting of the sun, the phases of the moon, the position of the planets, which many proprietors bought year after year from an obliging astronomer in Massachusetts for thirty dollars. There was often advice to the farmer and housewife, sometimes cartoons, and nearly always jokes, clipped from the daily and comic papers by members of the office force. The reader would not go far without encountering a message from the sponsor. For the nostrum proprietors did not forget that the purpose of the whole venture was to sell their products, and each small raft of wisdom or amusement was floated in a vast therapeutic sea [31].

Each year just before the Christmas season, local druggists and general storekeepers all over the nation received supplies of almanacs, for which their only payment was a small charge for freight. Each year between Christmas and New Year, these almanacs were placed upon thousands of counters for millions of families to carry home, or were distributed to doorsteps by youngsters willing to peddle all day for a quarter. Hung from a nail in a kitchen corner, laid on the top of a bureau, each almanac was a calendar, a reference work, a source of entertainment -- in some cases, indeed, a family's complete library -- for twelve long months. Many copies surviving in archives testify to the hard and constant use to which almanacs were put; the pages are dog-eared and finger-smeared, the margins crammed with pencilled notations of income and outgo [32].

In the Pennsylvania farm home of Mark Sullivan, the family library consisted of several schoolbooks, a local weekly paper, and an incomplete copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin. To young Mark the annual arrival of the nostrum almanac was a literary event. The same was true for Carl Sandburg out in Illinois. He and a brother and sister read the Hostetter issues aloud to each other, discussing the points of the jokes. Thousands of youngsters across the nation, destined for futures much less literary, must have done likewise. The patent medicine almanac was a sort of informal textbook for educating the American people [33].

Quantitatively, indeed, the almanacs were a mighty important textbook. No other printed sources were issued in such large editions. Perhaps the Bible was an exception, one taken account of by the Ayer company in drafting its boastful slogan: "Second only to the Bible in circulation is Ayer's Almanac." Close behind the product of the Ayer printshop came the almanacs which David and then Herbert Hostetter issued from 1861 through 1910. By the early 1870's the Hostetter publishing division, begun in 1866, was turning out a "United States" almanac, another English edition for California, and eight foreign lan-guage versions. During the last quarter of the century, the annual printings ranged from 10,000,000 to 13,000,000 copies. When these almanacs were added to those of Ayer, and when the millions issued by other competitors were heaped on the pile, there must have been printed each year from the 1870's through the 1890's at least one patent medicine almanac for every two Americans, not to mention those that went overseas [34].

That many of the nostrum proprietors made or added to fortunes is doubtless one token of the educational effectiveness of these textbooks they issued year by year. Perhaps there was a wider impact. The almanacs may have helped form social attitudes in the American grass-roots mind of the late 19th century. Or, at any rate, the points of view revealed in almanac humor may reflect the judgments and prejudices of the common men toward whom the almanacs were aimed. For certainly the patent medicine proprietors, even in an age in which the art of public relations lacked sophistication, would hardly have repeated in issue after issue stereotypes offensive to the main body of their potential customers. If this be so, minority groups were held in low esteem by the native Americans in village and on farm to whom the almanacs were primarily directed. Granting that there were conventions in humor that may have softened the blow, the Irishman, the Jew, and the Negro were treated with derision and scorn [35].

The sons of Erin, in quip and cartoon, show up as pugnacious, stupid, dishonest, and cowardly. Often the facial features were drawn with a simian cast, but with hardly the bitterness displayed in the sketching of the Jew. Tramps, peddlers, or pawnbrokers, Jews were always after money and slow to yield it up. The Negro too was portrayed in unkindly fashion, with kinky hair, huge lips, and monstrous feet, a simpleton who was shiftless, unkempt, and untrustworthy. Year alter year, beginning in the mid-eighties, one change after another was rung on the theme that Negroes steal chickens.

Other nostrum almanacs besides those issued by the Hostetters followed a similar line with these minority groups. Millions of Americans may well have had their social attitudes in-fluenced, or their prejudices confirmed, by such a steady diet of unflattering caricatures. Occasionally, even while printing editions for earlier immigrant groups in their own languages, almanac editors seemed to wonder if continued immigration was desirable. One 1897 Hostetter cartoon depicted "The White Man" following the Indian up to the land of the Great Spirit, and calling: "Make room for me. I am the last real American. Emi-gration has put me in the same fix with yourself."

Whatever may be said of Hostetter as educator, as salesman Herbert was successful. In his first ten years as president of the corporation, with a capital stock of $90,000, Herbert paid out over $810,000 in dividends. The new century opened optimistically, though problems aplenty soon were to appear.

One of the difficulties stemmed from success itself, as Herbert's father had discovered before him. Hostetter's Bitters was so popular that unscrupulous competitors sought to cut in on its market. Once an employee who knew the formula ran off to start a rival plant. Many advertisements over the years sought to warn the public to be on guard against impostors. Frequent lawsuits sought to run counterfeiters out of business. Especially aggravating was the empty-bottle racket. By techniques hark-ing back to the heyday of the old English patent medicines, real Hostetter bottles, the labels still intact, were refilled with a cheap substitute brew and retailed as the real thing. Such cases Hostetter's usually won, but victory was hard to keep. "Despite our most earnest efforts," Herbert reported to his stockholders, "the counterfeiting and imitating of our Bitters grows on apace, and today are being manufactured extensively in New York City, New Orleans, San Francisco, Denver, St. Louis, & Cincinnati: our net loss from this source must be very great, but not only have we difficulty in apprehending these numerous compounders, but in the event of our being successful the damages awarded are simply absurd, and the firm after being convicted changes its name, moves to another cellar, and resumes business [36].

This was aggravating, but more threatening was the increased tempo of the temperance movement. The dry forces had fully wakened to the possibilities inherent in a bitters bottle. In 1883 the WCTU had organized a Department of Non-Alcoholic Medication to do battle, and "in their zeal for reforming things," according to a drug trade periodical, "their fervor doth often get the better of their judgement." Worse than this, from Hostetter's point of view, was the way in which the growing number of prohibition states, or areas dry by local option, classed bitters of high alcoholic content as a drink. "The acute stage appeared first in Georgia," Herbert reported, "where nothing that will intoxicate or that contains Alcohol can be sold or given away." In a dozen other states, mostly in the South and West, similar hazards confronted St. George, and druggists were asking help in defending themselves when arrested for selling the bitters in violation of the laws. Court victories were won in some cases when aid was given, but the future appeared grim [37].

Out of the same arid atmosphere arose a ghost to haunt the company, a ghost Herbert doubtless hoped his father had put to rest. A new Commissioner of Internal Revenue, in 1905, reversed the stand of his 1883 predecessor and ruled that high-alcoholic nostrums, even when sold in bottles, were liquors, that their manufacturers required a rectifier's license, and that retailers must pay a federal fee. The name of Hostetter's Bitters appeared on the first list. This was, Herbert told his stockholders, a "hard blow," and one that seriously hurt prestige and curtailed sales. Worse was yet to come. For the prohibition forces were on the march, and no mere bitters manufacturer could hope to stop them [38].


  1. Cited in Walsh, Cures, The Story of Cures That Fail, 48, and in JAMA, 1 (1883), 283.
  2. The businessman was Ben Hyde, an important stockholder, and the episode occurred during April 1956. In 1959 the Hostetter name was bought by Lanolin Plus. FDC Reports, "The Pink Sheet," Drugs and Cosmetics, 21 (June 29, 1959), 20.
  3. C. Robinson, ed., The Biographical Encyclopaedia of Pennsylvania of the Nineteenth Century (Phila., 1874), 618-19; Charles E. Warren, "Pittsburgh," Mag. of Western Hist., 3 (Jan. 1886), 26-66; Pittr. Commercial Gaz., Nov. 6 and 7, 1888; Erasmus Wilson, ed., Standard History of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania (Chicago, 1898), 1,005-1,008.
  4. Industries of Pittsburgh, Trade, Commerce and Manufactures (Pitts., 1879), 127; genealogical information furnished by William P. Ortale, General Manager of the Hostetter Corporation in 1956, whose association with the Hostetter fortunes dated from 1949.
  5. Hostetter's United States Almanac, 1867.
  6. Ibid., 1861; 1887 advertisement from the advertising proof file in the Corporation's archives, which the author was permitted to examine, as he was much other surviving material, through the generosity of Mr. Ortale.
  7. 1887 and 1888 ads, advertising proof file; Harper's Wkly., 10 (1866), 687. 8 .JAMA, 1 (1883), 281-85; Oleson, Secret Nostrums and Systems of Medicine, 95; Amer. Med. Assoc., Nostrums and Quackery, II, 740-43; Dispensatory of the United States of America (10th ed., Phila., 1854), passim, with quotation as to tonic powers from p. 2.
  8. JAMA, 1 (1883), 281-85; Hostetter v. Sommers, 84 Fed. 333.
  9. JAMA, 1 (1883), 281-85; Sandburg, Always the Toung Strangers (N.Y., 1952), 228.
  10. Hostetter's almanacs, 1861 and 1864; 1909 President's report, in Minute Book of the Hostetter Company, in the Corporation's archives. Independent analyses sometimes showed an amount of alcohol greater than 39%. See John Phiillips Street, compiler, The Composition of Certain Patent and Proprietary Medicines (Chicago, 1917), 32-35.
  11. Ernest H. Cherrington, The Evolution of Prohibition in the United States of America (Westerville, 0., 1920), 135-162; Arthur C. Cole, The Irrepressible Conflict, 1850-1865 (N.Y., 1934), 160-63.
  12. Hostetter's almanac, 1864.
  13. Dr. Walker's California Bitters Almanac, 1872, in N.Y. Public Library; Walker's handbill, Landauer Coll., N.-Y. Hist. Soc.; Street, 33, 35; Oleson, 186; P. H. Drake & Co., Morning, Noon, and Night, 1872, Landauer Coil.; Druggists Circular and Chemical Gazette, 49 (1905), 124; Family Health Almanac, 1876, N.Y. Public Library.
  14. Gallatin, Mo., North Missourian, May 25, 1865, cited in Atherton, Main Street on the Middle Border, 223.
  15. Thompson, Bitters Bottles, 75-77; Clark, Pills, Petticoats and Plows, The Southern Country Store, 223.
  16. Cherrington, 165-82, 254-58; Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Modern America, 1865-1878 (N.Y., 1927), 336-38; Arthur M. Schlesinger, The Rise of the City, 1878-1898 (N.Y., 1933), 354.
  17. Thompson, 11, 13.
  18. Hostetter's almanac, 1861; "A Summary of the operations of . . . The Hostetter Company," in the Corporation's archives; Holcombe, "Private Die Proprietary Stamp Notes," Wkly. Philatelic Gossip, Aug. 19, 1939, 621.
  19. Warren, 261-66; Wilson, 1,005-1,008; Pitts. Commercial Gaz., Nov. 7, 1888.
  20. Portrait bound as frontispiece to 1887 Hostetter's almanacs in Corporation's archives; genealogical material in archives; Pitts. Press, Feb. 6, 1955; Pitts. Commercial Gaz., Nov. 7, 1888; Warren, 261-66.
  21. Genealogical material in Corporation's archives; N.Y. Times, Aug. 4, 1902; American Weekly, Aug. 20, 1950; The Book of Prominent Pennsylvanians (Pitts., 1913), 181; Charles A. Rook, ed., Western Pennsylvanians (Pitts., 1923), 138.
  22. Portrait in Book of Prominent Pennsylvanians, 181; Rook, 138.
  23. Pitts. Commercial Gaz., Oct. 31, 1884, Nov. 6, 1888; Minute Book; Rowell, Forty Tears an Advertising Agent, 1865-1905, 390.
  24. Earnest Elmo Calkins, And Hearing Not-. (N.Y., 1946), 93; 1888 and 1892 ads, advertising proof file; "A Summary of the operations of . . . The Hostetter Company."
  25. Clarence S. Brigham, An Account of American Almanacs and Their Value for Historical Study (reprinted from Proceedings of the Amer. Antiquarian Soc., Oct. 1925); George L. Kittredge, The Old Farmer and His Almanack (Boston, 1904), 100-103.
  26. Brigham, 7-8. On the question of origins, I have been helped by a letter from Milton Drake of Riverdale, N.Y., citing his Check-List and Census of American Almanacs. The Bristol's almanac is in the Rare Book Div., Library of Congress.
  27. Jayne later dated his almanacs from 1843, but Drake has found no copy earlier than 1847. The early worm appears in the 1850 edition in the Landauer Coil.; the later worm was seen in the 1859 edition, in the N.Y. Public Library, passim to 1911 edition in the Landauer Coil.
  28. Ayer's almanac, 1855, in N.Y. Public Library.
  29. Amer. Druggist and Pharm. Record, 36 (1900), 228; Sidney A. Sherman, "Advertising in the United States," Amer. Statistical Soc. Publications, ns 7 (Dec. 1900), 5. A bound collection of Ayer's almanacs for 1889, with a two-page foreword, is located in the Peabody Institute Library, Baltimore.
  30. Hazeltines Pocket-Book Almanac for 1885 and Dr. 0. Phelps Brown 1872 Shakespeare Almanac, in the Landauer Coil.; St. Jacobs Oil Family Calendar 1883-84 [with selections by Bill Nye and Joel Chandler Harris], in N.Y. Public Library; A. C. Cantley, "Some Facts about Making Patent Medicines," Chautau-quan, 27 (1898), 389; Ayer's almanac, 1885, in the author's collection.
  31. Ayer almanac order form, 1864, in Landauer Coil.; McLaughry & Tyler, Fountain Green, Ill., Invoice Book, 1860 . . . 1877, Ill. State Hist. Library; Gerald Carson, The Old Country Store (N.Y., 1954), 247-48; Sandburg, 118, 148-49, 227-29.
  32. Ibid., 227-29; Sullivan, The Education of an American (N.Y., 1938), 67.
  33. Holcombe, "Private Die Proprietary Stamp Notes," Scott's Monthly Jnl.,
  34. Jan. 1938, 396; industries of Pittsburgh, 127; Hostetter's almanac, 1900; "A Summary of the operations of ... The Hostetter Company."
  35. The Hostetter Corporation retains an almost complete file of the almanacs; the N.Y. Public Library also has a good file; Richard Hofstadter, in The Age of Reform From Bryan to F.D.R. (N.Y., 1955), 77-81, comments on the anti-Semitism of the Populist movement of the 1890's.
  36. Minute Book, 1899, 1908; law cases include: Hostetter v. Adams, 10 Fed. 838; Hostetter v. Fries, 17 Fed. 620; Hostetter v. Sommers, 84 Fed. 333; Hostetter v. William Schneider Co., 107 Fed. 705; Hostetter v. Martinoni, 110 Fed. 524.
  37. Dykstra, "Patent and Proprietary Medicine: Regulation and Control Prior to 1906," 182; Amer. Druggist and Pharm. Record, 26 (1900), 93; Minute Book, 1908, 1909.
  38. Ibid., 1908-1911; Dykstra, 117-19; Bull, of Pharmacy, 19 (1905), 400, 488; 20 (1906), 181-82. Herbert Hostetter died in 1924, and, according to the Minute Book, the bitters passed from the hands of the Hostetter family in 1935.

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