Sunday, June 28, 2009

Maltine: Moving to "The Safe Side"

Prior to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 one of the decisions that companies manufacturing medicines had to face was whether they played to the public with claims to cure a wide range of ailments, or whether to be more restrained and cater to the medical fraternity. Some, to potential peril, tried to straddle the line. This was brought home to me recently with my purchase of a paperweight advertising a product called “Maltine.”

Maltine turns out to be an extract of malted barley, wheat and oats, highly fortified by alcohol. It was the brain child of John Carnrick (1837-1903), a pharmacologist who invented a whole shelf of elixirs with such imaginative names as Lacto-peptine, Peptenzyme, and Kumysgen, this last a concoction purportedly made from fermented mare’s milk. In general, these nostrums and Maltine were drinks to impart nutrition, improve digestion, and remedy undefined stomach ailments.

First merchandised through Carnrick’s drug manufacturing firm, Reed and Carnrick, the product subsequently was sold through a spin-off, the Maltine Manufacturing Company of Brooklyn, New York. Maltine was heavily promoted to doctors through ads in medical journals, trade cards depicting leading doctors and surgeons, and a range of practical giveaway items aimed at physicians. These included a “home call book” -- remember that doctors once made house calls -- and a sign for the door when the doctor was out. All contained plugs for Maltine.

To meet stiff competition for the malt drink market, however, Maltine’s management could not resist going directly to the public. It issued trade cards that showed cherubic youngsters, sometimes hefting a Maltine bottle, thus making the case that their product was safe for children. Widely distributed owl bookmarks claimed: “Its effects in anemia, childrosis [an entirely fictitious medical condition], and other forms of blood impoverishment are almost magical.” Childrosis? Magical? Maltine seemed to be crossing the line of propriety.

This kind of advertising predictably brought howls of protests from physicians. As early as 1894 the company officials in letters to medical journals across the country vigorously insisted that Maltine was not a “patent medicine” and that their intention was to reach patients only through physicians.

On the other hand, the company could not resist mixing additional trendy ingredients with Maltine, including cod liver oil, peptones, and a triple combination of iron phosphate -- used today to poison garden slugs -- quinine, and, believe it or not, strychnine. Its best seller, however, became Maltine with Coca Wine. Ads suggested drinking a full glass of this potion during or after every meal. Children were advised to take only half a glass. In a given year, 10,000 bottles of Maltine with Coca Wine were sold.

Meanwhile, authorities were increasingly concerned about the growing number of cocaine addicts in the country. The substance derived from the coca plant was becoming so popular that it had become a public health problem. Maltine’s management was faced with a dilemma: Dump Maltine with Coca Wine and lose thousands of dollars in sales, or keep selling it and risk angering the medical fraternity.

In 1907 a company lawyer provided the answer in a statement to the Federal Bureau of Chemistry, the forerunner of the FDA: “Simply because all these cocaine preparations are getting into such bad odor, the Maltine Company does not want anything to do with one. We thought it advisable to be on the safe side and give up the the preparation altogether rather than get mixed up in something unpleasant.” Ironically, chemists had been able to find only minute traces of cocaine in Maltine with Coca Wine -- not believed enough to lead to addiction.

Nonetheless, It was a wise decision. By 1914 Congress had rendered it illegal nationwide to put cocaine in consumer products. The Maltine Company re-established its reputation for being an ethical drug company. It subsequently was bought by Chilcott Laboratories, which in turn was acquired by Warmer Lambert, itself swallowed up by Pfizer, Inc., in 2000. Maltine disappeared with Prohibition.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Vaseline Glass Goes to War

The picture of the nuclear explosion shown here reminds us of the ongoing struggle of countries like Iran and North Korea to join the “Nuclear Club.” A little known story of the effort to develop the first atomic bomb was the pivotal role played by American and British companies that specialized in making glassware with a yellow green hue that often are called “vaseline glass.”

The unique color of this glass, shown here in several examples, is imparted by the use of uranium oxide in the molten mixture. Employing uranium in glass goes back at least to 79 AD, the date of a mosaic containing yellow glass with 1% uranium found in a Roman villa on the Bay of Naples. Used through the ages, uranium in glass became particularly popular in the mid 19th Century with a peak period between 1880 and 1920.

American glass makers, such as the Fenton Glass Company of Williams, West Virginia, became primary suppliers to the U.S. market, turning out decanters, goblets, beer steins, and paperweights, all with a distinctive yellow green cast. The material, technically a glass-ceramic, acquired the name vaseline glass because of its reputed similar appearance to petroleum jelly.

Production ceased sharply with the outbreak of World War Two. In one of the most tightly held secrets in history, the United States embarked on a project to build a new and highly destructive explosive device, known popularly as the atomic bomb. Uranium oxide was a necessary component of this bomb and government agents began clandestinely to gather up supplies wherever they could be found. Factory managers were approached and told that the government was confiscating their uranium oxide. They were pledged to absolute secrecy on the pain of criminal prosecution.

The amount of uranium oxide obtained in this way has been highly classified, but the British, who followed Uncle Sam in collecting the material, have revealed that three tons were taken from just one of its glass factories. It is highly possible that some of the glass company supplies found their way into the two bombs dropped on Japan at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The ban on using uranium oxide in glass remained in force until 1958 when sufficient supplies of uranium were deemed available. By that time concern had arisen about the safety of the use of uranium to glass house workers and consumers. Less toxic depleted uranium dioxide was substituted. Because of tight regulations on its use and the expense of the ingredient, however, only a handful of glass houses have continued to produce vaseline glass.

Vaseline glass has continued to be popular with collectors. A sure way to tell if a particular item has a uranium content is to place it under ultraviolet light. As shown here by the side by side pitchers, the glass fluoresces bright green under the light. A highly sensitive Geiger counter will also detect the trace radiation, although most pieces of vaseline glass are considered to be only slightly radioactive and not harmful.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Franchising Buster Brown

In 1904 an Ohio-born cartoonist went to the St. Louis World’s Fair where he hoped to sell the rights to a pair of comic page characters he had created. He came away having signed up an estimated 200 businesses eager to merchandise the images of a naughty boy named Buster Brown and his dog, Tige. More than a century later, we still have the pair with us.

The cartoonist was Richard Outcault (1863-1928), shown here. He is consider the father of the modern comic strip, having been the first to use multiple panels and speech balloons. For the the Hearst New York Journal in 1902, he introduced Buster Brown, a mischievous boy dressed Little Lord Fauntleroy style, with an odd-looking dog. The strip was an instant hit with kids and parents alike. “Buster was drawn to be marketed,” one writer has observed.

Given the sensibilities of our time, perhaps the most unusual product making use of the Buster Brown image was a Jacksonville, Florida, cigar company. The Buster Brown Cigar featured a picture of a man blowing smoke from his eyes and ears while Tige and Buster look on approvingly. This image appeared on cigar boxes, canisters, trade cards, cigar bands and, as shown here, even on paperweights.

A different, but no less startling message appeared on another Buster Brown cigar box lid. Shown here it depicts Buster offering a cigar to Tige who seems eager to take one. The text reads: Resolved: That to be spanked for smoking is an injustice when I took such pains to resist temptation and Pa smokes “em.” Hardly a statement 21st Century parents would be happy to read.

Buster and Tige also advertised for less controversial products. Among them were spices from the Forbes Tea and Coffee Company, clothes from Stewart & Co. of Baltimore, and Buster Brown Bread which used his image widely on a range of items. One of the bread company’s Buster Brown match holders recently sold for $355.

By far the most famous and successful company to exploit the Buster Brown image was the Brown Shoe Company, which had been founded 25 years earlier in St. Louis by George Warren Brown. For the princely sum of $200 he bought the right to market Buster and Tige and never looked back. Brown Shoe made marketing history in 1905 when it sent on the road a series of actors, each dressed as Buster and accompanied by a Tige-imitating dog. These troupes roamed the entire United States selling Buster Brown shoes as they performed in theaters, department stores and shoe stores. In those pre-TV days, such a touring show could bring out a whole town. Shoe sales soared.

In ensuing years Buster Brown became a nationally advertised figure, was featured in movie shorts, on radio, and on television -- selling shoes. By 1958 the Buster Brown line had become largest brand of footwear for children. Today the company’s annual revenues are about $2.4 billion. Clearly Buster Brown must be considered one of advertising’s most successful icons, having survived more than a full century. Through the years the Brown Shoe Company has updated the image of this “good little bad boy” and his faithful canine, but the final product is always true to the concept Richard Outcault invented and sold so capably.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Whiskey at Sea: The Economics

About 1865 the scion of a wealthy and politically connected family who bore the improbable name of Outerbridge Horsey returned from from four years in Europe, having avoided service in the Civil War, to rebuild his whiskey distillery in Burkittsville, Maryland, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Young Horsey brought home with him the idea that sloshing around inside barrels on the high seas mellowed and aged whiskey in beneficial ways that sedentary storing in warehouses failed to do. Scotch distilleries were accustomed to aging their product on long sea voyages to the U.S. and beyond. A few American distillers occasionally sent their whiskey into the Caribbean and back.

But Outerbridge, who aimed at producing the highest quality whiskey, went further than anyone else. Carried on oceangoing steamships, Horsey Rye was shipped down the East Coast of the United States, traveled the length of Latin America, rounded Cape Horn (remember, no Panama Canal at that time), headed up the Pacific Coast of the Southern Continent, cruised past Mexico, and finally docked in San Francisco weeks later. Then by railroad the barrels were transported across the length of the United States back to Maryland where the whiskey was decanted into bottles.

Horsey marked his crates, like the one shown here, with the message: “This whiskey was shipped by sea to San Francisco per S.S. ______, thus acquiring a unique and most agreeable softness.” If it was a gimmick, it worked. As Jim Bready, the guru of Maryland distilling, has put it: “For many years, this funny name whiskey from an obscure coil somewhere in the outback, this hundred-proof Maryland marvel, ‘rich in all the qualities that epicures require,’ had a Massachusetts-to-California clientele--at hotels and clubs, not corner saloons.”

For a long time the economics of this situation escaped me. How could it possibly have been profitable to Horsey to send his whiskey around two continents only to have it return to the exact place where it was made before bottling and selling it? Some Internet research has helped provide an answer.

First, not all of Horsey’s whiskey came home. Some was sold in San Francisco. An 1897 San Francisco guidebook subtitled “Good Things to Eat and Drink and Where to Get Them” touted Horsey Rye to local residents and told them the saloons where it could be purchased. Horsey also featured a second brand called “Golden Gate Rye” that also may have been sold in California.

Second, and more important, the economics of the time did not make the long sea journey all that expensive. For example, The New York Times reported in August 1903 that: “Distillers have found that it costs less to send whiskey to Bremen and Hamburg and ship it from there by way of Cape Horn than it costs to send it from Louisville to San Francisco by rail.”

Statistics provided at an 1887 Interstate Commerce Commission hearing back up that astonishing claim. A distiller documented to the ICC that a barrel of whiskey could be sent from the Port of Baltimore around the Horn to San Francisco for about $1 a barrel. That was five times cheaper than shipping a barrel cross country by freight train.

Horsey’s round trip expenses, when divided into 40 gallons of whiskey per barrel, add up to an around-the-Horn transit cost to San Francisco of only about 3 cents per gallon. To send the shipment back by rail to Baltimore was an additional 7 cents a gallon, for a total transit expense of 10 cents. That makes the cost for each quart bottle only 2.5 cents.

Whiskey in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as today, varied significantly in price. Although Jack Daniels at 18-years-old went for a pricey $2.50 a quart, perfectly respectable whiskey could be had for $1.00. I have not seen a quote on Horsey Rye but as a quality product, we can guess it sold for about $1.75 a quart. If that price is accurate, then sending Horsey Rye around the Horn added only 1.4% to its total cost. Well worth it, we may agree with Outerbridge, if only for the bragging rights.