Sunday, January 20, 2013

On Beyond Holcombe: C. Wakefield & Company

This week, Malcolm Goldstein returns with an article on C. Wakefield & Company.


C. W. & CO.
JUL  23  1900


C. W. & CO.
May  25,  '0.



Cyrenius Wakefield, the superstar of C Wakefield & Co, never intended to be either a physician or a patent medicine manufacturer.  His ambition was to homestead a farm and raise stock, and he initially molded his life to pursue this goal.  However, circumstances, both fortunate and unfortunate, led him to ownership and control of a large and prosperous mid-western patent medicine company.  Because of the westward progression of his ancestors and his own westward journey, he may be the most truly representative Nineteenth Century pioneering figure that this study so far has chanced to discuss.

Cyrenius Wakefield


Directly descended from an ancestor who had emigrated to the colonies about 1680 from the village of Wakefield, England, (the same memorialized by the 18th Century writer Oliver Goldsmith in his novel “The Vicar of Wakefield,” as Wakefield’s advertising later trumpeted),  Cyrenius (sometimes Sirenus) Wakefield was born in Watertown, NY in 1815, the fourth of the six children of Joseph Wakefield.  Joseph himself had moved west from Rutland, VT to develop his farm with his wife Susan, born in New Hampshire.  Young Cyrenius grew up in Watertown, farming in season and teaching school in winter.  In 1837, he journeyed by steamboat, stage and on foot (for the last two days, since there was no public conveyance) to Bloomington, IL, then on the western frontier, where he apparently believed he would find his opportunity to homestead. Exactly why he harbored this supposition about this particular location on the frontier is not recounted in the extant records.  Supporting himself for fifteen months as a school teacher, particularly to benefit in winter from the large stove (rare in the West) with which the schoolhouse was equipped, he eventually purchased land in DeWitt County south of Bloomington. Over the next several years, he cleared land in summer and taught school in winter, until he had created enough of a farmstead to begin his own family.  In 1843, he journeyed back to Watertown, to marry “an old schoolmate” to be his “housekeeper” (in the quaint words of the Nineteenth Century Illinois regional history book puff biographies of Wakefield).

One of Dr Wakefield’s neighbors summarized the pristine state of the region around Bloomington, IL in the pioneer era in the following poetic doggerel:

Great western waste of bottom land,
Flat as a pancake, rich as grease;
Where mosquitoes are as big as toads
And toads as big as geese.

Beautiful prairie, rich with grass,
Where buffaloes and snakes prevail;
The first with dreadful looking face,
The last with dreadful sounding tail.

I’d rather live on camel’s rump
And be a Yankee Doodle beggar,
Then where they never see a stump
And shake to death with fever ager.



In 1845, Cyrenius was visited by his older brother, Zera, a circumstance that ultimately altered the trajectory of both their lives.  After graduating from medical school in Cincinnati, OH, Zera had settled in southwestern Arkansas and had been practicing medicine there for ten years.  He was so favorably impressed by the farm that Cyrenius had develop in Illinois, that he decided to re-settle there himself, and moved to Bloomington.  In 1846, Zera lent Cyrenius money to start a country store, which Cyrenius managed successfully while Zera established his medical practice.  When the seasonal “miasmatic” fevers began in the region the next year, Zera applied the techniques he had developed “down South” in Arkansas, and was recognized immediately as an expert able to “break up the most severe cases here in a few hours.  His wonderful success created a great sensation, and his fame soon extended fifty miles around.  With the aid of a driver and a change of horses, he was quite unable to fill all of the demands upon him.”  To meet the needs of those patients he was unable to attend himself as demand grew, Zera prepared careful formulas for his medicines and taught Cyrenius how to compound them. This development, in turn, led Cyrenius to order uniform bottles and himself prepare directions so that growing number of patients could self administer the medicine that Cyrenius was preparing.  The Wakefield country store gradually transformed into a medical laboratory.  Advertising for Wakefield’s remedies always thereafter dated the founding of the company as 1846.  Then Zera died suddenly in 1848 of a “violent congestion of the lungs which carried him off in thirty-six hours.” Although devastated by his brother’s death, Cyrenius felt obliged to sell his farm, invest the proceeds into consolidating control of the business by buying out his brother’s bride of two months, and move to Bloomington to “obtain better postal and express facilities.” In this way, Cyrenius Wakefield created C Wakefield & Co out of the opportunity of his brother’s fortuitous re-settlement and the bitter adversity of that same brother’s death.


Once settled in Bloomington, Cyrenius operated a retail drug business in a storefront with a partner, while using the rear of the store as his manufacturing plant.  He “applied himself diligently to the study of medicine and pharmacy ... and here gained the title of Doctor.” In other words, Dr C Wakefield’s title was self conveyed.  By 1857, he gave up the retail drug trade and devoted himself entirely to the manufacture of the line of Wakefield remedies.  While there were setbacks along the way - a fire that burned his newly built house in February, 1853 (or 1854) (for which he was uninsured) and another great fire in October, 1855, that, in the course of destroying downtown Bloomington, destroyed most of his business location (for which he was under-insured) -  the business ultimately grew and prospered as he “extended his local agencies over all of the Western States.”  Although Wakefield never bothered to order and print his own private die proprietary stamps during the period of the Civil War revenue tax between 1863 and 1883, cancels on several RBs are identified with his company.





In 1868, Wakefield’s older son, Oscar, became “superintendent” of the company’s laboratory, and in 1871, Wakefield elevated his brother-in-law and Oscar to the status of partners and turned day to day control of the business over to them.  As a puff biography stated, by 1874, the Wakefield Co employed: 


forty persons in [its] medicine business (one-half of whom are female) and [its] annual sales amount to $100,000. [It] converts twenty-five tons of paper into almanacs every year for free distribution, for the purpose of advertising [its] remedies. [Its] largest sales are made where fevers are most dangerous and most common, particularly in new[ly settled] counties where [the doctor] is glad to know that his remedies are the means of doing great good. It seems now well recognized among advertisers that advertising is only of temporary benefit unless the product advertised presented to the public has intrinsic merit.  The  Doctor has made himself quite independent by the judicious advertising of good and reliable remedies.

By 1879, the company’s printing production numbers had doubled and its net worth was estimated at $150,000.  It was producing approximately “ten different remedies ...  mostly fever and ague specifics, balsams, cough-sirups [sic], [and] pills.”  These medicines were sold in “Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa ... [as well as] the Western and Southwestern states.”  To oversee his business, Dr Wakefield maintained a separate team and  wagon in six of those states and operated the business through “six thousand local agents, mostly druggists and dealers, who sell his medicine on commission.” The business employed “twenty-five to fifty hands, according to season” and kept four printing presses running to generate the necessary almanacs and other publicity. “In 1860 he got up 100,000 almanacs for his agents to circulate,” and in 1879 he sent out “1,500,000," using “fifty tons of printing paper,” and printing them in “English, German, Norwegian and Swedish.” 

In retirement, Dr Wakefield visited Atlantic City and Philadelphia in the Centennial year of 1876 and traveled with his family to Europe in the summer of 1878.  One of the regional histories summarized his character as “a man of very firm and decided principle.” Among his most notable achievements, he was a founder of the Republican Party in Bloomington, advocating for the new political party after the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and participating in the first local meeting held on September 9, 1854.  In fact, a very recent book on Lincoln’s development as a politician in Illinois prior to his run for the presidency identifies Dr. Wakefield not only as a backer of Lincoln, but also a close friend.  He was also a “liberal supporter of the Free Congregational Church” in Bloomington, and, while declining to stand for formal public office, he did serve stints as a member of the Bloomington City School Board, and as the head of the local volunteer Public Committee on Distribution.  “As a citizen, he stands among the foremost of the best known of the many public-spirited men of our city, having a fame that extends outside the city, county or State, being, in fact, a man of national reputation.”  Wakefield died in 1885 in Bloomington.



In the 1890s, C Wakefield & Co was marketing a line of remedies which included   Blackberry Balsam, Cough Syrup, Golden Ointment, Wine Bitters, Liver Pills, Pain Cure, Eye Salve, Worm Destroyer, Nerve & Bone Liniment, Egyptian Liniment, Fever Specific and Egyptian Salve. Blackberry Balsam was advertised in a company guide to its remedies as a “sure cure” for diarrhea, dysentery, cholera morbus, cholera infantum, winter and mountain cholera, summer complaint, flux and relaxed conditions of the bowels.” It was described not only as “an astringent, checking the relaxation of the bowels, but act[ing] as a regulator, leaving the stomach and bowels in such a condition that nature again asserts control.”  The prescribed average dosage was one large tablespoonful, however, “when the liver is torpid and the stomach bilious, the action of the bowels may not be fully regulated for several days.”  Cough Syrup was prescribed as a cure for “colds, coughs, la grippe, typhoid and lung fever, croup, measles, whooping cough and all throat and lung affections.”  The syrup was administered at a rate of one teaspoonful every one or two hours, with relief reported sometimes as quickly as after “four doses during an afternoon and evening.”  Golden Ointment was described as the cure for all external applications where “soothing, softening or healing” was needed, such as burns, scalds, cuts and ‘frosted parts,’ as well as “corns, running sores, boils, felons, sore nipples, caked breast, scald head, chapped hands” and finally “no equal for sore throat.”  The Ointment was formed into a plaster and applied over diseased parts.  Wine Bitters gave “tone, energy and vigor to the digestive organs, renews the blood, increases the appetite, removes old long-standing headaches, acts as a gentle laxative, breaks up a costive heart, cures dyspepsia, boils and sores by thoroughly cleaning the blood, and will soon give renewed vigor to the whole physical system.”  Recommended dosage was one tablespoonful three times a day shortly before meals.  An advertising booklet lavished similar warm praise on all of the other remedies.  Liver Pills were classed as vegetable purgatives and averred to be “superior for liver and kidney troubles, costiveness [constipation], jaundice, sick-headache, gout and all bilious affections.”  The directions were to take one every night before bed, and depending upon one’s constitution possibly one in the morning as well.  The goal was to achieve “one action of the bowel daily, and slightly increase the quantity and fluency of that action.”



After the passing of its luminous central personality, C Wakefield & Co settled into the role of a stalwart supporting player among the many patent medicine manufacturers.  In 1897, it was listed as a member of the Proprietary Association of America (PAA), the patent medicine manufacturing trade association, and its principals were listed as the Estate of C Wakefield, Oscar Wakefield, Executor; General Manager Oscar Wakefield; directors Cyrenius’s younger son, Dr Homer Wakefield, and his younger daughter, Hattie Brady.  In 1902, the company, as a member of the PAA, specifically and voluntarily endorsed the Tripartite Agreement, the master retail price maintenance control plan entered into by the PAA, the National Association of Wholesale Druggists and the National Association of Retail Druggists later deemed illegal under the Sherman Act. 



C Wakefield & Co persevered through the muckraking era without its products ever drawing direct flak from the reformers (for containing either undisclosed poisons or water parading as a miracle drug).  However, its advertising of “sure” cures was included by the Federal Drug Administration in its large compilations of objectionable advertising appended as exhibits to its congressional testimony in 1912 pressing for the legislation ultimately passed as the Sherley Amendment. That law extended the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 beyond merely requiring disclosure of poisons and barring adulteration, and finally made such promises of “sure cures” also unlawful.  Yet, deprived of a dynamo at its core or even promises of “sure” cures for humans, the company continued to exist.  Since Wakefield’s remedies had been promoted equally for animals as for people, veterinary usage allowed the company to reshape its marketing policy, and by the late 1920s, Wakefield’s advertising seems to have been centered upon poultry journals, and pitched to convince farmers to use its Blackberry Balsam to cure poultry diarrhea.  Appealing to that particular audience seems to have allowed the company to carry on through the economic hard times and the era of more stringent regulation that followed.  On the Internet, one can locate an image of a box of Wakefield’s “Balsam for Diarrhea” manufactured by a C Wakefield & Co, “established in 1846,” now from a location in Levittown, NY 11756 (5 digit zip codes date from 1963, although one source concludes, perhaps on the basis of that image, that the products were being manufactured as late as the 1980s).  The final tepid word on C Wakefield & Co seems to be that it survived because its remedies did no great substantive harm to their users.

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