Sunday, November 18, 2012

On Beyond Holcombe: Vapo-Cresolene

On Beyond Holcombe by Malcolm A. Goldstein appears on Sundays at 1898 Revenues.









According to Mustacich and Giacomelli, the Vapo-Cresolene Company can be conclusively linked to only a single printed cancel appearing on RB 28.  Hardly worth a mention in philatelic annals, right?  Perhaps such willful ignorance animates those battleship specialists whose principal joy is discovering new intricacies in the line arrangement or millimeter spacings among printed cancels.  Since this study focuses on the wider implications of patent medicine companies, the immense volume of this company’s advertising in contemporary newspapers, magazines and journals and the lingering existence of its iconic lamps (ever discovered in dusty corners of flea markets, in antique stores and available on line), argue for its enormous success both as a patent medicine industry competitor and as a cultural force worth examining.



Even philatelically, there ought to be more to Vapo-Cresolene’s story.  The sheer enormity of its presence in both the past and present markets seem to require a larger philatelic footprint.  Mustacich and Giacomelli do identify one hand-stamped “V.-C.Co” cancel observed on an RB 28 that probably ought to be matched with this company.  Other un-attributed “V. C. Co.” cancels appear on values other than RB 28. These cancels may or may not coincide with the Company’s product line, which did include both replacement parts and replenishment bottles of the liquid used in its system.  Two un-attributed hand-stamps (only one of which appears on an RB 28) that otherwise might match - “T V C” and “T V & Co” - just miss alignment with the company’s name, even though that name sometimes appears in advertising as The Vapo-Cresolene Co.  Maybe this article will persuade collectors of all flavors - stamps, bottles, lamps, antiques - to take another look at their boxes and revenue stamp pieces to see if they can find more cancelled battleships that are definitively Vapo-Cresolene’s.



Vapo-Cresolene was popular.  The Vapo-Cresolene box appeared large, yellow, and solid on the druggist’s shelf.  When opened, it contained a small glass lamp, a sturdy, heavy, but gracefully molded, iron stand with an opening at the bottom to hold the lamp and an arm at the top suspending a vaporizer tray over the opening for the lamp, together with a bottle of Cresolene, a spare lamp wick, and instructions.  The instructions told the user to fill the lamp with kerosene only - alcohol would explode - and turn the flame up as high as manageable without causing smoke for the first fifteen minutes.  Once the lamp was producing heat, it was placed in the stand under the Vaporizer tray. 



However distinctively idiomatic the lamp and stand were and remain, it was the Cresolene, a sticky black liquid,  that constituted the therapeutic core of the device.  The Cresolene was poured into the tray and allowed to vaporize over the lamp flame in a ventilated room, and was intended to disinfect the space into which it permeated. The company advertised the Vapo-Cresolene system to be effective in treating respiratory diseases such as croup, catarrh, diphtheria, whooping cough, scarlet fever and asthma, by destroying the disease producing microbes in the patient’s system when the vapor was inhaled.  While Cresolene was the company’s proprietary formulation, the American Medical Association’s analysis in 1908 found it to be no more or less than garden variety cresol as described in the United States Pharmacopoeia, the official scientific compilation of medical compounds used in the United States. (Recall that the eminent scientist, Dr. Lyon of Nelson, Baker & Co, served on the 1900 decennial revision committee for that document.) 

Cresols are organic compounds characterized by a methyl group (CH3) attached to a phenol molecule (a benzene ring with a hydroxyl radical (OH) already bonded to it).  By definition, they occur in nature as components of pitch and bitumen, and had been used without specific identification as parts of these undifferentiated materials for medicinal purposes since antiquity. First recognized as separate chemicals and refined in the 1830s, these compounds themselves were, as will be discussed below in detail, produced by distilling coal tar, itself originally regarded as a useless by-product of the reduction, or controlled burning, of wood or coal.  The medicinal utility of cresols was debated throughout the 19th Century.  They were employed as antiseptics and disinfectants, but as the concentration of the cresols increased in a substance, the potential to burn also rose in direct proportion. While a number of companies that cancelled battleship revenues built their fortunes on clever uses of cresol compounds (and those companies will be encompassed by this study), eventually, the compounds themselves were replaced for most medical purposes by others that had the same beneficent power to disinfect without the concomitant danger of injury.

As for the public’s use of the Vapo-Cresolene vaporizer system, since the therapy was accepted as potentially medically useful, although marginal at best since the inhalant had to be kept quite mild to avoid being poisonous, all the AMA article could conclude - much in the same manner as Consumer Reports does now for consumer goods - was that the Vapo-Cresolene system was unnecessarily expensive without producing any greater beneficial effect than any inexpensive generic equivalent cresol compound: “ This report indicates that Vapo-Cresolene is a member of that class of proprietaries in which an ordinary product is endowed, by the manufacturer, with extraordinary virtues.  The type is so common and has been referred to so frequently that but for the dangers attendant on the inhalation of any of the phenols, this particular product need not have been mentioned.”



Vapo-Cresolene, as a patent medicine business, resulted from the merging of the talents of one James Henry Valentine, the inventor of the vaporizer system, and George Shepard Page.  Sadly, Valentine’s character and personality do not emerge clearly from current records.  In a history of Chatham, NJ, he is portrayed as the man who singularly and successfully used a “coal tar acid named Cresolene” as a vapor to relieve the discomfort of his child suffering from whooping cough.  However, because he did not have sufficient money to follow through with his idea, he soon turned the operation of the vaporizer business over to Page.  The government issued its first patent for the vaporizing system in 1881 to one Elias H Carpenter.  Carpenter immediately assigned the patent to Valentine, who, in turn, assigned a one-half interest to George Page.  Valentine owned parts of several patents obtained from the 1880s to 1903, in connection with improvements made the lamp apparatus as well as for the bottles used for Vapo-Cresolene, and, although he ought to have drawn some monetary benefit for himself (as well as his sick daughter) from these patents, he is remembered now only for his intuitive tinkering and otherwise fades quickly from the history of the Vapo-Cresolene Company.  A possible consequence of his exit is that a James H Valentine is listed as a director of the Vaporia Medicine Co, which filed in New Jersey for a corporate certificate in 1900, and in 1901 maintained its own offices in New York City. This company, which, coincidently, also marketed a coal tar derivative vaporizing system, became the Varoma Medicine Co in 1902, and promptly appointed as its agent another battleship cancelling company, wholesale druggist W H Schieffelin & Co (yet another story for another day).


George S. Page

George S Page (1839-1892) was already rich when he first encountered Valentine.  Born in Redfield, ME in 1839 and educated in Chelsea, MA, by 1879, Page had both control of the essential ingredient, Cresolene, and the financial expertise and means to fully develop Valentine’s vaporizer idea. Because of his own comfortable situation, he was delighted to finance Valentine’s vaporizing venture as a side business to his own.  Because the Pages conducted the Vapo-Cresolene business, had the wealth, and attracted its attendant contemporary publicity, they have earned whatever kind of immortality articles such as these produce.

Page’s career and fortune arose from the production of coal gas and the discriminating refinement of coal tar.  After briefly attempting to make his fortune in the West as a young man, he returned to work with his father at Samuel Page & Son of Boston, MA, a company which specialized in the distillation of paraffin oils, wax and mineral oil then used as the purest and choicest of illuminating materials, from the by-products of that reduction, of wood, certain minerals or coal.  By 1800, scientists also had discovered the secret of extracting coal gas as another by-product from the reduction of coal.  This process, in turn, became one of the growth industries of the first half of the Nineteenth Century because coal gas was the first product that could be both manufactured and distributed cheaply to illuminate the lamps of cities at the dawn of the “gas light era.”  (Natural gas came decades later.)  Coal gas production became, in essence, the first indispensable utility.  Coal tar, itself a mixture of some two hundred different substances, was also a by-product of the reduction of coal. To virtually all of those who were busy cashing in on the coal gas boom to illuminate cities, coal tar was an oily, thick, dirty substance often considered worse than useless. Page not only applied the talents he had learned working for his father to jump into the field of coal gas production, but he also made the vital connection that coal tar itself could be further refined into usable pitch, a material then most notably used as a water-sealant for caulking ships, or in Page’s observation, as a paving material to lay a sidewalk.

Page himself often recounted the story of his life-altering discovery. He noticed a group of workmen laying a pitch sidewalk during a visit to Salem, MA, and took from them some of the pitch they were using.  He then went to the local Salem gas works, where he procured some coal tar.  On the following morning, he returned to the paving site and presented the foreman of the job with the sample of pitch the foreman had given him together with a sample of pitch he had produced from the coal tar by-product of the Salem gas works.  The foreman chose Page’s product as superior, and a new paving material industry was born in that instant. Necessity might also have driven Page’s brilliant insight because just at the same moment he experienced his epiphany in Salem, commercial petroleum was becoming available from Pennsylvania to supplant paraffin as the finest and most brilliant illuminating material. Page was bright and quick enough to observe that he had to expand his horizons beyond paraffin production.



By 1865, as well as his coal gas production interests, Page was associated with the firm of Page, Kidder & Fletcher, which in 1872 morphed into a stock corporation, the New York Coal Tar Chemical Co, known for producing roofing and water proofing material, as well as a range of commercially useful chemicals, such as carbolic acid, naphtha, benzol, and ammonia sulfate, all from coal tar.  Page’s fortune was created by his clever application of scientific advances and redoubled by his shrewd investment in the capricious stock market of his era, although his career in industry also continued from highlight to highlight.  He was responsible for introducing to the United States several new generations of European technology for improving the refinement of coal tar to produce purer and more precise derivative compounds, each of which rewarded him with a fresh fortune. He also played a significant role in the gas industry itself, negotiating at one point, for example, among warring factions of gas producers in St. Louis to resolve their differences and form an efficient (and probably monopolistic) combine.





Page played as hard as he worked.  He was, as an obituary characterized him, “an ardent sportsman, and his love for the rod, gun, dog and field was second only to his fealty to the gas industry.” By 1888, he had created an estate of several hundred acres called “Stanley” in honor of his mother’s maiden name, in the Orange Hills near Chatham, in Morris County, NJ, had settled down to the life of a country squire and had separated himself from the day to day operations of his chemical company. He was a driving spirit behind the U.S. Fish Commission, a government agency which was among the earliest to apply scientific methodology to fish breeding, was the president of the Chatham, NJ Fish and Game Protective Association, and vice-president of the American Fish-Culturist Association. He was instrumental in the development of Rangeley, ME as a fishing and hunting destination.  The breeding records of his kennels, also developed with his son Albion as a commercial business and known as the Dunrobin Kennels, are enshrined in the archives of the American Kennel Club.  After his father’s death, Albion carried on in his father’s footsteps as a sportsman.  In 1900, his racing horses, which garnered second prize at the Morristown Field Club, in Morristown, NJ, team trials, were two chestnut mares named Vapo and Cresolene.           

George S Page was also a noted philanthropist in his time, serving as the president of the Howard Mission and Home for Little Wanders .  He was an active member of his Congregationalist Church, superintendent of its Sunday School, and a vocal advocate and supporter of public education. He was also a founder of the New Jersey Temperance Association and its president for several years.  When he died, quite suddenly at age 52, his funeral was held, as the same contemporary obituary noted, at his “manor house ... amid a throng that represented every phase of the life of the district for miles around.”  That obituary, published in the American Gas Light Journal issue of April 4, 1892, noted that his death:

caused a shock to many of our readers; for it is hard to realize that a splendid physical development nourished by carefully trained habits of abstemiousness and by strict attention to the laws of nature and culture could be so closely allied to the swiftest summons of death.  In the prime of a vigorous manhood, Mr. Page passed away, almost without warning, on the morning of Saturday, March 26th, and with this going out was terminated the life that animated the body of an impulsive though consistent, of a just but generous, of a decided but not bigoted man. In fact, to write of him as dead is somewhat difficult now.  The time that separates him from us does not seem sufficient to reconcile us to the knowledge that his marked personality is at an end.



Strangely enough, aside from his mention in connection with its funding, George S Page’s name does not really ever appear again in the Vapo-Cresolene Company’s records.  However, Page had four sons and a daughter and there can be no doubt this business, among all of George’s various interests, was carried on as a family affair. By the 1880s, George Page’s oldest son Albion Lambert Page, had become the President of the Company. Forty years later, a listing of the Vapo-Cresolene Company’s directors in 1919 shows that Albion was still entrenched as President and Manager of the Company as well as a director.  George’s second son Harry de Bacon Page, was Vice-President, Treasurer and a director.  George’s third son Lawrence S Page was Secretary and a director of the Company.  The remaining directors were Raymond F Page, George’s fourth son, and George’s only daughter, Florence P Ensign.  The Company had begun operation in 1879, had offices in New York City at different addresses on Fulton, Wall and Cortlandt streets, and located its manufacturing plant in Chatham, NJ, undoubtedly where George S could keep an eye on it as long as he remained alive.  It soon had its own offices in Montreal, Canada and Durban, South Africa.  Its London agent was Allen and Hanburys, Ltd, already profiled in this column.  In 1901, its capitalization was $75,000; by 1919 capitalization had doubled to $150,000.

Vapo-Cresolene’s vaporizer system was, and continued to be, advertised widely for approximately 80 years.  Of course, used improperly, Vapo-Cresolene units could, and did, cause harm.  There was always the danger of fire posed by an open flame in any lamp, and upset Vapo-Cresolene lamps and stands accounted for some number of fires.  There were periodic reports in medical journals of near poisonings caused by using the Vapo-Cresolene lamp in an improperly ventilated room, although Vapo-Cresolene’s advertising stressed that it was most efficaciously used in a closed room. On a least one occasion, in 1912, an infant died from drinking the contents of an unattended Cresolene bottle, which everyone understood to be poisonous if ingested.  By the 1920s, the Company branched into producing tablets to broaden its product offerings, and by the 1940s, the government forced the company to tone down its promises of cures for respiratory illnesses. Yet with all these drawbacks, Vapo-Cresolene vaporizer units, eventually with electric heating elements supplanting the kerosene lamps, continued to be produced until the 1950s.  Why did the public embrace such an inefficient and potentially dangerous system for so long?  That question probably cannot be answered precisely, but it can equally asserted that nothing has really changed.  Medicine is often predicated on refining poison.  After all, Botox, the miracle anti-aging drug of our times, is merely diluted botulism toxin, among the most fatal and deadly substances known to man.

The major figure that emerges from the history of Vapo-Cresolene is George S Page, who really plays only an indirect role in its story.  While today, to the extent he is remembered at all, he is known as a sportsman, he was also a pioneering businessman, and deserves his place among the industrial barons of the Nineteenth Century, with all of the both good and bad connotation that title evokes. If Vapo-Cresolene was an afterthought or off-shoot of a more important venture to him, it has endured to eclipse his memory and lives on in our collective imagination, because of  its still available advertisements and vaporizers, and is stitched into our collective image of art nouveau.   



Vapo-Cresolene cancels from the collection of Henry Tolman

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