Friday, March 2, 2012

Topeka's Medicine Man - W. W. Gavitt - Part 1 of 5 - The Man and his Medicine!

You know the old Frank Sinatra song:

"My kind of town, Topeka is...Calling me home, Topeka is..."

Well, something like that, anyway. Topeka, Kansas, is my hometown. I was born there and our family came back there when I was in junior high...we lived there for another 7 or so years. I still have friends there.

It's my pleasure then over the course of the next week or so to offer a 5-part series (count 'em...five!) on Topeka's "medicine man": W. W. Gavitt...a company that did business (all kinds) in Topeka, including making and selling patent medicines, for almost a hundred years!

This first post introduces the man and the medicine...including two vintage (1920s and 1950s) Gavitt medicine packages in my collection...the next three parts will be drawn from a sampling o
f thirty-plus letters to and from the Gavitt medicine company in my collection from the late 1800s to early 1900s that show various aspects of the business (some of them humorous) as well as testimonials from customers. Finally, I'll tell a pretty fun story that connects the Gavitt medicine company to the Civil War, the Lincoln assassination, and the hunt for John Wilkes Booth!

William W. Gavitt (1840-1922) from the Kansas Historical Society:

In 1867 W. W. Gavitt came to Topeka and organized a real estate and coal business. In 1869 he commenced his banking and loan career. He would become one of Topeka's wealthiest citizens. Although reputedly organized in 1869, the company's rise to prominence dates from its reorganization in 1889 by Harry E. Gavitt, William's son.

In the formative years of his company, Gavitt was the general agent for the Dr. Perkins Medical Company of Washington, D.C. Perkin's major product, hence Gavitt's, was Our Native Herbs, a combination of 21 roots and herbs, such as sassafras, liverwort, balmony, magnolia, rhubarb, prickly ash, poplar, spearmint, elecampane, sarsaparilla, mandrake, juniper, burdock, Canada balsam, boneset, wormwood, and yellow dock. It was guaranteed to cure: "Rheumatism, Dyspepsia, Sick and Nervous Headache, Nervousness, Constipation, Piles, Irregularity of the Bowels, Diarrhea, Catarrh, Fevers, General Debility, Sickness of the Stomach, Pain in the Side, Numbness of the Limbs, Cold Feet and Hands, Bad Taste in Mouth, Yellow Skin, Loss of Appetite, Worms, Stagnation of the Blood, Failure to Perspire Freely, Bad Circulation, Scrofula, Tetter, Erysipelas, Old Sores, Dropsy, Liver and Kidney Troubles, Heart Disease, Fits, all Female Complaints, Dark Circles Under the Eyes, Bearing Down Sensation, Pimples, Rough Skin, and Poison in the Blood."

By 1895, there were more than 5,000 users of the preparation in Topeka alone. Testimonials were printed from such people as a Topeka health officer, a fire department chief, judges, and the whole police department.

The company conducted major drives to acquire agents as the preparation was only sold door to door. Particular attention was paid to enlisting the support of G.A.R. leaders and ministers.

Gavitt later manufactured his own preparation called the System Regulator, with basically the same ingredients as the Native Herbs as well as Cough Balsam, Herbal Ointment, Lightning Pain Extractor, and Pile Driver for Piles.

Gavitt boasted testimonials from everyone—Arthur Capper to middleweight boxing champ Bob Fitsimmons—as well as most of the Ringling Brothers Circus.

The company eventually marketed more than 200 different types of flavorings, household articles, spices, soaps, toilet articles, perfumes, baking products, and even a parlor game "stockmarket," which is currently marketed by a major firm as "Pit." Carrington Gavitt, the youngest son sold the business in 1967.

To learn more about W. W. Gavitt and his company,I encourage you to visit:

W. W. Gavitt Papers - State Archives - Kansas Historical Society

and these articles from The Topeka Capital-Journal:

Q&A: Stock exchange game invented in Topeka
Gavitt was a Renaissance businessman
Herb store lasted until 1967
From gold cure to madstones

The photographs in this post are of two packages of Gavitt's Herb Tablets in my collection, one from c. 1920s (above) and the other c. 1950s (below). The latter package includes the full complement of 100 pills! Also below are package inserts.

The photo of the Gavitt medical display is from the Kansas Historical Society.



Pat Sullivan said...


JEvans said...

I have came upon numerous letters from the late 1800s to the early 1900s from customers writing the company ordering medications mostly referred to as system regulator

JEvans said...

I found a bag full of envelopes and letters to the W.W.Gavitt Medical Company from the late 1800s to early 1900s from people ordering different medications most are referred to as Gavitts System Regulator,was wondering if these were of any historical value.