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History of the Comstock Patent Medicine Business and Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills   By:

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by Robert B. Shaw Associate Professor, Accounting and History Clarkson College of Technology Potsdam, N.Y.


COVER: Changing methods of packaging Comstock remedies over the years. Lower left: Original packaging of the Indian Root Pills in oval veneer boxes. Lower center: The glass bottles and cardboard and tin boxes. Lower right: The modern packaging during the final years of domestic manufacture. Upper left: The Indian Root Pills as they are still being packaged and distributed in Australia. Upper center: Dr. Howard's Electric Blood Builder Pills. Upper right: Comstock's Dead Shot Worm Pellets.

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Shaw, Robert B., 1916

History of the Comstock patent medicine business and of Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills. (Smithsonian studies in history and technology, no. 22)

Bibliography: p.

1. Comstock (W.H.) Company. I. Title. II. Series: Smithsonian Institution. Smithsonian studies in history and technology, no. 22.

HD9666.9.C62S46 338.7'6'615886 76 39864

Official publication date is handstamped in a limited number of initial copies and is recorded in the Institution's annual report , Smithsonian Year.

For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office Washington, D.C. 20402 Price 65 cents (paper cover) Stock Number 4700 0204

History of the Comstock Patent Medicine Business and of Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills

For nearly a century a conspicuous feature of the small riverside village of Morristown, in northern New York State, was the W.H. Comstock factory, better known as the home of the celebrated Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills. This business never grew to be more than a modest undertaking in modern industrial terms, and amid the congestion of any large city its few buildings straddling a branch railroad and its work force of several dozens at most would have been little noticed, but in its rural setting the enterprise occupied a prominent role in the economic life of the community for over ninety years. Aside from the omnipresent forest and dairy industries, it represented the only manufacturing activity for miles around and was easily the largest single employer in its village, as well as the chief recipient and shipper of freight at the adjacent railroad station. For some years, early in the present century, the company supplied a primitive electric service to the community, and the Comstock Hotel, until it was destroyed by fire, served as the principal village hostelry.

But the influence of this business was by no means strictly local. For decades thousands of boxes of pills and bottles of elixir, together with advertising circulars and almanacs in the millions, flowed out of this remote village to druggists in thousands of communities in the United States and Canada, in Latin America, and in the Orient. And Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills and the other remedies must have been household names wherever people suffered aches and infirmities. Thus Morristown, notwithstanding its placid appearance, played an active role in commerce and industry throughout the colorful patent medicine era.

Today, the Indian Root Pill factory stands abandoned and forlorn its decline and demise brought on by an age of more precise medical diagnoses and the more stringent enforcement of various food and drug acts. After abandonment, the factory was ransacked by vandals; and records, documents, wrappers, advertising circulars, pills awaiting packaging, and other effects were thrown down from the shelves and scattered over the floors. This made it impossible to recover and examine the records systematically. The former proprietors of the business, however, had for some reason perhaps sheer inertia apparently preserved all of their records for over a century, storing them in the loft like attic over the packaging building. Despite their careless treatment, enough records were recovered to reconstruct most of the history of the Comstock enterprise and to cast new light upon the patent medicine industry of the United States during its heyday... Continue reading book >>

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