Mentholatum was founded in 1889 in Wichita, Kansas. Starting out as small purveyor of soaps and toiletries, Mentholatum grew into a global health and wellness company exporting to over 110 countries. The company is now headquartered in Orchard Park, was aquired by Japan-based Rohto Pharmaceutical Company, Ltd. in 1988, and its former building at 1360 Niagara Street is undergoing redevelopment into residential and commercial space by Ciminelli Real Estate Corporation.
A detailed look at the history of the company was compiled by Preservation Studios as part of the background for the National Register of Historic Places Registration Form necessary to place the Niagara Street property on the National Register. That information is below.
The history of the Mentholatum Company begins with Albert Alexander Hyde and the Yucca Company. Hyde was a failed real estate mogul who lost $100,000 in an 1887 housing panic in Kansas and desperately sought a means to support his family.1 In 1889, Hyde helped form the Yucca Company, manufacturers of soaps and shaving creams that utilized the yucca plant as a primary ingredient.2 The company began with three men: Walter Binkley, a former partner in the Stallings Palmole Soap Company; pharmacist Clayton Smith; and Hyde, who supplied the company its startup capital of $600 and manufacturing space.3
Advances in shipping technology heavily influenced the Yucca Company’s early history. Many of the company’s early products utilized essential oils and supplements extracted from non-native plants. One prominent essential oil utilized was menthol, an oil extracted from peppermint plants in Hokkaido, Japan.4 Without advancements in steamship technology that allowed for greater shipping tonnage, the price of this essential oil would likely have been beyond the reach of Hyde and his partners in landlocked Wichita, and the company wouldn’t have even considered making use of menthol in their products.
The Yucca Company experienced a breakthrough after shifting away from toilet soaps and yucca shaving creams. Hyde recognized that his company needed to sell a product with greater profitability than common soap and decided to focus on what was then being called the “Vest Pocket Cough Specific.”5 This menthol based throat relief product was moderately profitable and Hyde decided to explore the medicinal benefits of certain essential oils, particularly menthol. Using the Vest Pocket Cough Specific as a guide, Alexander Hyde created a salve that utilized essential oils to relieve muscle aches and congestion. The resulting product was subsequently named Mentholatum, a portmanteau of its two prominent ingredients, menthol and petrolatum.6 In Mentholatum, the essential oils of menthol and camphor were mixed with petrolatum, a jelly that could adhere to the skin, allowing direct contact between the oils and pores. The Wichita-based company placed its fortunes behind this new product, abandoning the Yucca Company name in favor of the Mentholatum Company moniker by which it is still known.
Mentholatum salve took off quickly in the Midwest, allowing Hyde to consider expansion. In 1903, Hyde opened a branch factory on South Division Street in Buffalo that was followed eleven years later by a second factory in Fort Erie, Canada. These two factories were important early links in Hyde’s Mentholatum production line. The Fort Erie factory supplied the entire Canadian market with Mentholatum, while the South Division Street location was the company’s first inroad into the Eastern United States. Buffalo became the Mentholatum Company’s most important production site in 1919, when an 80,000 square foot factory, the nominated building, was built at 1360 Niagara Street. The factory produced Mentholatum for most of the Western Hemisphere and in the 1940s, it became corporate headquarters for the company in addition to serving as the main production site.
The Mentholatum Company experienced major success overseas as well. The company hired T. W. Turner to design a factory in Slough, England in 1914, establishing a presence in the United Kingdom. The company also made several inroads into the Japanese market via Christian missionaries known as the Omi Mission. These missionaries oversaw a Mentholatum factory on the island of Honshu and used the profits they derived to support themselves and a Christian school on the island.7 Mentholatum’s connection to Japan became a defining part of the company’s history. In 1988, a century after the company’s inception, the Mentholatum Company was bought by the Japanese pharmaceutical company Rohto Pharmaceutical. The Mentholatum Company is now a subsidiary of Rohto Pharmaceutical and continues to provide its traditional line of menthol infused products. The company still maintains its presence in the Buffalo region through its North American headquarters, which is located in Orchard Park.
Patent Medicine and American Quackery
The Mentholatum Company’s formative years occurred in the midst of the patent medicine era. Patent medicines were purported cures and miracle drugs that were sold as an alternative to medical care from a doctor. Promotors of these elixirs often claimed they contained exotic elements such as snake oil and swamp roots, giving them great potency. In 1927, Dr. A. J. Clark of the University of Pittsburgh explained that the term for these promoters, “quack,” “has come to signify in popular usage a pretender to medical knowledge.”8 Hawkers and quack doctors claimed these miracle drugs could cure dozens of ailments, ranging from the common cold to cancer, syphilis, and tuberculosis, for a fraction of the cost of visiting a doctor.
Prior to widespread health insurance coverage, trips to the doctor were often expensive and potentially fatal due to the implementation of bloodletting and the administration of minerals that science would later prove to be poisonous. As a result, alternative medicines became popular as an economical and, in some cases, safer alternative to a doctor. Further, for rural Americans, a trip to the doctor’s office was often a long buggy or cart ride away, meaning that in the event of an emergency or sudden onset of illness, medicine had to be administered at home or not at all. Beyond locally grown herbs and grasses, patent medicines and so-called miracle cures were often the only medicine available to American consumers.
Due to the inconvenience and mistrust of professional medicine at the time, opportunistic businessmen developed alternative medicines to capitalize on consumer worries. These ventures invested in aggressive advertising campaigns that presented alternative medicine products as wonder cures and put far less effort into crafting quality products. Initially, the Mentholatum Company fit the bill; it advertised Mentholatum as “The Great Japanese Salve Mentholatum,” playing up menthol’s exotic nature to boost sales.9
One of the most notable patent medicines was the “Microbe Killer,” sold by the quack doctor William Radam. In 1890, a year after Hyde helped found the Yucca Company, Radam played off of scientific advances by Louis Pasteur in germ theory to promote the Microbe Killer and publish Microbes and The Microbe Killer. This book detailed how his Microbe Killer would eradicate any and all disease in the body of its user. Radam offered himself as an example of the Microbe Killer’s potency, claiming that he was an invalid prior to developing the Microbe Killer but had been cured of all infirmaries through his research.10
Radam’s testimonial reflects the bluster and bravado of patent medicine and the quacks who sold them. It also illuminates widespread skepticism towards visiting doctors and the anger that many people felt at their inability to access proper medical care due to its expense. Radam’s promotion of the Microbe Killer is sermon-like and a quintessential example of the promotional tactics employed by quacks. One passage reads:
They [the medical profession] decry me as an ignorant man, one who knows nothing about medicine, or any thing but the raising of beets and cabbages, a useful thing to know, by the way, and an honorable business too… after abusing me for ignorance, they cry that I am killing people with poisons, and in the same breath they pray: ‘Oh, Heaven aid us, and make these microbe killers harmless! Lord, protect our profession!’11
Another passage read:
If your child has already been in the doctor’s hands, and even if he [the doctor] has given it up, take my advice, ask him to send in his bill, give up his noxious drugs and poisonous medicines, and avail yourself of my discovery.12
The appeal to honest professions, such as beet farming and cabbage stewardship, contrasts with the fear doctors supposedly held for the Microbe Killer. In the book, salt-of-the-earth knowledge is touted as superior to college education, and the doctor is treated as a shifty individual rather than a healer. Importantly, Radam describes his tonic more as what modern readers would consider a supplement, best used regularly to keep microbes at bay, thus necessitating regular purchases to ensure continued health.13
At three hundred and sixty-nine pages, with photographs, appendices, and multiple detailed chapters, Radam’s book encapsulates the era of patent and quack medicine. Medicine was sold via bluster, quasi-religious miracle cure testimonials, and a dose of scorn for professional medicine. Though Mentholatum shared some characteristics with patent medicines such as the Microbe Killer, it developed its own marketing strategy and survival method during the era of quackery in America.
The Mentholatum Company separated itself from the swath of alternatives remedies such as the Microbe Killer because its products had actual medical value and relieved symptoms of various ailments, particularly muscle aches and the common cold. Mentholatum was first promoted as a relief to symptoms relating to burns, scalds, insect bites and other skin discomforts.14 Later, Mentholatum became widely accepted for use in nasal passages to overcome congestion due to head colds, sinus, asthma and hay fever.15
Other patent medicines were either useless, or physically harmful due to painkilling. Narcotics such as morphine, opium, or cocaine that were sometimes mixed into them, and were quickly labeled “quack remedies.” The era of quack medicine was crippled in 1906 when Theodore Roosevelt signed into law the Pure Food and Drugs Act, which disbarred advertisers and salesmen from claiming a product was a ‘cure’ unless it truly cured the illness; the law also created warning labels and forced makers to detail what ingredients made up their product.16
The Mentholatum Company also distanced itself from other alternative medicines by advertising Mentholatum directly to druggists, bucking the industry trend towards massive advertising and miracle drug claims. Mentholatum’s success was built upon free samples and the positive reception these sample boxes received throughout the country, as well as a rewards program for pharmacists who promoted Mentholatum to their customers.17 These strategies were successful, and by 1903, the year Mentholatum first came to Buffalo, the company was worth almost $100,000, a tenfold increase from just ten years earlier.18