Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Patent Medicine Counterfeiters - 1858 Letter to Perry Davis & Co.

First Page of 1858 Letter to Perry Davis - James M. Schmidt Collection
As soon as enterprising men and women began preparing and selling patent medicines they were plagued by counterfeiters stealing their bottles, labels, contents, names, and more.  As one pair of historians declared, “The secret of a formula might, if only to a degree, be retained, but simulation of bottle design and printed wrapper was easily accomplished, and to the average customer these externals were the medicine.”

Indeed, the more popular and successful the medicine, the more likely it was to be subject to fraudulent imitation.

The subject of these counterfeiters - especially of one of America's landmark patent medicines - Perry Davis Pain Killer - was the subject of an article I wrote that appeared in the most recent issue (January 2013) of Antique Bottle & Glass Collector magazine (AB&GC).

AB&GC and Bottles & Extras (published by the Federation of Historical Bottle Collectors) are two excellent magazines and I recommend them highly! (I am happily a subsriber to AB&GC and B&E and a member of the FOHBC).  Both magazines routinely feature articles that encompass much more than just glass history: they include art, biography, disease, local history, invention, postal history, quackery, Civil War, manufacturing, and much, much more!  You can read more about Bottles & Extras in a previous blog post here.

The centerpiece of my article was an 1858 letter in my collection that really brings the counterfeit problem to life!  I happily share the letter and an excerpt from the article below.  Enjoy!

Owing to its success as one of the earliest and most popular of American patent medicines, the firm of Perry Davis & Co. (later Perry Davis & Son) had deep pockets and used its considerable resources to protect its landmark product, “Perry Davis’ Vegetable Pain-Killer.”

(Read more about Perry Davis and its trademark protections in a previous blog post here).

One of my favorite aspects of bottle collecting is the intersection with postal history.  I have a growing collection of letters and covers from the 1800s to and from patent medicine makers and their customers.  One of the favorite items in my collection – a December 1858 letter written from Petaluma, California, to Providence, Rhode Island – really brings the Davis counterfeiting saga to life!

Cover of 1858 Letter to Perry Davs - James M. Schmidt Collection

The letter:

Messrs. Perry Davis & Son

Gents! I enclose a label such as is put on bottles of a compound sold extensively in California as your Pain Killer.  As it is sold in some instances by Druggists of respectability and asserted to be the original style of label as first used on your compound I am anxious to know whether you have ever put up any of your pain killer with a similar label on the bottles.

Be good enough to answer immediately enclosing the same label to me again and inform me explicitly as to the genuineness of any compound having such a label upon it, and whether you have ever made use of any such upon any bottles of your compound.

The label is found on bottles having 12 equal sides being nearly round.  If as I suppose it is “counterfeit” I wish to banish it if possible from my neighborhood and therefore want the label and such information in relation to it as may be conclusive on the subject.  My only motives are to put down imposition and encourage fair dealing.

I am with respect yours &c

Charles Patton

Rare Labeled 12-sided Perry Davis Bottle (Collection of Dan Cowman, M.D.)
Where to start?!  First, it is a testament to the popularity and range of Davis’s “Pain Killer” that it was known as far west as California!  Second, while the label sent with the letter in 1858 has unfortunately been lost to history, Patton’s question about the 12-sided bottle is perhaps the most important and interesting part of this letter.  In fact, Perry Davis did sell his medicine in such a bottle in the 1840s and early 1850s; he then moved to an octagon-shaped container.  But as early as 1856, he declared in almanacs and advertisements that “the genuine Perry Davis Pain Killer is now put up in panel bottles, with the words ‘Davis’s Vegetable Pain Killer’ blown into the glass; and with two steel engraved labels on each bottle.”

Since the letter above was written in 1858, there’s a good chance that Patton had indeed found a counterfeiter.  If the Petaluma druggist was indeed a bottle pirate, perhaps he thought he’d be safe in far-off California and outside the reach of Davis.  While we don’t know what happened after Patton wrote his letter, there is ample evidence of the lengths and expense to which the Davis firm would go to find and prosecute counterfeiters, including espionage!  For example, in June 1851, an agent of Beach & Bond – a well-known law firm (and, possibly, detective agency) in Springfield, Massachusetts – wrote a letter to J. N. Harris, an agent for Perry Davis & Son in New London, Connecticut, suggesting they place a spy at Packard & Co., a firm suspected of manufacturing and selling counterfeit shipments of Perry Davis' Vegetable Pain Killer.

They also wondered:

If some clue might be got to the fraud by looking at the R.R. [railroad] books at Palmer [Massachusetts] and finding where the bottles come from? There must be a considerable quantity of glassware brought over the R.R. to answer the purposes of those who are putting up the spurious article.”

Perry Davis was in no hurry; according to the letter his policy was “not to pounce [emphasis in original] upon the villains till we are possessed of all the necessary evidence.”  The diligent men at Beach & Bond promised to “endeavor to obtain information that may be of service” to Davis & Co. and “write again when we hear of anything new.”

Woe to those on the wrong end of a fight with Davis!


George B. Griffenhagen and James Harvey Young, Old English Patent Medicines in America, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1959.

Letter, 1851 June 3, Beach & Bond, Springfield, MA, to Jonathan H. Harris, New London, CT, Atwater Collection of Popular Medicine, Edward G. Miner Library, University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester, NY.

I would like to thank expert collectors John Panella, and Ferdinand Meyer V, for their support and advice, and to Dan Cowman, M.D., for sharing photos of items in his collection.  I would also like to thank Christopher Hoolihan, Rare Books & Manuscripts Librarian and curator of the Atwater Collection, for providing a copy of the Beach & Bond Letter.

My other patent medicine-related posts are collected here.

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