While researching the history of the Union Hotel in Flemington, I came across an advertisement in the November 5, 1845 edition of a newspaper called Public Ledger, located in Philadelphia. It caught my attention for a couple reasons. First, because of its claim to be the only known cure for consumption.
In the 18th century and up through the early 20th century, consumption, today known as tuberculosis,1 was the number one killer in America. It is caused by a bacterial attack on the lungs and got the name ‘consumption’ because many of its victims suffered weight loss along with a chronic cough. Like COVID, it was a disease that spread through the air that people breathed. And like COVID, it can be prevented with a vaccine.
But in 1845, there was no vaccine, and people were far more easily persuaded to try out whatever remedy was offered. (More about that later.) One of the most widely advertised cures was SCHENCK’S PULMONIC SYRUP, and it was an ad for this product that had caught my eye. Here is the first paragraph of the ad of 1845:
IMPORTANT FOR THE PUBLIC – Some years since, the proprietor of SCHENCK’S PULMONIC SYRUP made known to the public that Consumption could be cured, and in truth this is the only medicine ever discovered that will succeed in curing this terrible disease, and for this obvious reason, that no other medicine operates upon the system in the manner that the Pulmonic Syrup does.
This ad is six paragraphs long! some of them very long, in close type, as was the style of the time. Here is a screen shot of the first paragraphs.
Would anyone today have the patience to read through an ad like this? Certainly not. For starters, today’s newspapers have a much more readable layout. In addition, more ads are probably seen on television and the internet than in newspapers, and also today’s readers are not interested in curing consumption, thanks to modern medicine and the miracle of antibiotics.
Mr. Schenck is correct, however, that at the time there was no cure for it. His use of the word pulmonic to describe his consumption-curing syrup indicates the primitive understanding of a disease that had afflicted humans and animals for thousands of years. Pulmonic is another word for pulmonary which is an adjective for blood flow related to the lungs.2 Here is Schenck’s description of how his marvelous syrup worked:
It produces a healthy action upon the morbid parts, by purifying them from disease; it promotes the expectoration, allays the cough, ripens the matter in the lungs, and when it is discharged it heals the opening that the breaking of the tubercles or abscess produces, and the lungs become sound and resume the performance of their natural functions; it also soothes the irritated portion of the lungs and other organs, and thus restores these parts to health.
Sounds like wishful thinking. Schenck also reassured his readers that the medicine “contains no opium, calomel or any other deleterious medicine.”
Compared With Today’s Advertising
This ad was fairly typical for the 1840s, earlier and later, with the text crammed between the columns, and very little in the way of illustrations. By the beginning of the 20th century the style had changed, featuring larger ads with an abundance of illustrations.
For a comparison to modern ads from someone acquainted with current advertising techniques, I was fortunate to turn to my daughter-in-law for comments. Her first reaction was that the name of the drug was missing the chemical name for its contents, which now must be included in the first mention of the product. Also, the capitalization shown in the photo above would never be allowed today, and even more so, the claims to be the only cure for an ailment.
This had us wondering when the FDA began to regulate advertising. All through the 19th century, newspaper ads pretty much resembled the style of Schenck’s Syrup. Regulation of agricultural products by the federal government began in 1848, but it was not until 1906 that the Pure Food and Drugs Act was passed into law, not until 1930 that the FDA became known by its present name, and it was not until 1969 that the FDA established regulations for prescription drugs. That bill addressed the problem of Direct To Consumer Ads (DTCA). In many countries today that is simply not allowed; all drug advertising must be directed to medical professionals.
The claim quoted above about how the syrup acts once ingested would never be allowed today, as it describes its action without explaining how it acts. Also, despite the length of this ad, there is no safety information. Today, 15% of an ad must contain ISI, important safety information.
Unfortunately, despite all these precautions, people are still susceptible to misleading advertising in the drug industry.
So, who was Mr. Schenck?
He was John H. Schenck who came to Flemington in 1833. He may have been the John H. Schenck who was born in Monmouth County and married Jane Covenhoven in 1811. Curiously, he never bought any property in Flemington, and even though there were several members of a Schenck family living in and near Flemington, I have not been able to figure out who John H. Schenck’s relatives were. However, I would not be surprised to learn that two of them were Dr. John F. Schenck and Joseph H. Schenck, both also of Flemington, and both with murky roots (so to speak).
Exactly when Schenck came up with the ingredients for his syrup I cannot say, but it was probably not long before 1839, when the first advertisement for his syrup appeared in the Hunterdon Gazette. In the ad of 1845, he wrote:
About seven years since, he was given up by several eminent physicians, as being incurably fix- [sic] in the last stages of consumption. He was strongly solicited at the time, by an Indian woman, not to abandon his case as a hopeless one till he had tried a prescription of hers. With some reluctance and at the solicitation of his friends, he consented and within a short period found himself much improved, and in two months restored to sound health. At some expense, he procured the recipe, and has since gratuitously tendered its use to persons similarly afflicted with himself, as have casually fallen under his observation. The great success which has attended its administration, and the increasing demands upon his time for its manufacture, have induced him to offer it to the public. (Hunterdon Gazette, March 5, 1839)
It is quite possible that Dr. John F. Schenck, one of Flemington’s most prominent physicians, was among those who gave up on John H. Schenck. While suffering from his ailment, not only did he come up with a formula that may or may not have given sufferers relief, but he also came up with a marketing strategy and made a big success of it. By 1845, he had offices “at No.32 South Sixth St., Philadelphia; No.4 Cortland St., NY; No.55 North Gay St., Baltimore; and Redding & Co., No.8 State St., Boston, sole agents for the New England States.”
In his excellent book (The Press of Hunterdon County), Hubert G. Schmidt wrote about how patent medicines were “the most lucrative and most numerous” ads. Of several frequent advertisers,
Best of all was Schenck’s Pulmonic Syrup, certain to save the worst cases of “consumption,” as tuberculosis of the lungs was then called. One wonders whether everyone was sick in that day. Some of the “medicines” were for sale in the Gazette office.
Under the section of Schmidt’s book called “Page Four,” (p. 21), Schmidt discussed page four of the Hunterdon Democrat, which began publication in 1839. The page was devoted to advertisements.
. . . the last column was devoted to patent medicine advertisements, one of the surest revenue producers for editors of that period. In that day of “consumption,” Schenck’s Pulmonic Syrup was one of the biggest advertisers, and in this case nearly half a column was used in stating the virtues of this “cure” for tuberculosis and giving testimonials by those who had been cured.
And now we come to the second reason why I was struck by this particular ad. It was common practice in the pre-Civil War era to include testimonials for products, especially for medicines, along with the advertisement. And as if that were not enough, a Judge or other official was recruited to verify that the person giving the testimonial had sworn to the truth of it under oath.
As an example, following a lengthy ad in the Oct. 19, 1842 edition of the Gazette, the testimonial by Peter Stryker Beekman of Somerset County was followed by a notice from the presiding Judge of the Court of Common Pleas for that county, William B. Gaston, stating that Beekman appeared before him, and under oath swore that his statement regarding his cure by means of Schenck’s Syrup was true.
But the following testimonial was over and above any other I’ve ever seen:
We the undersigned, citizens of Flemington, county of Hunterdon and State of New Jersey, would state that we have been intimately acquainted with Mr. J. H. Schenck since the year 1833, at which time he removed to this town, and as early as 1839 manufactured and sold here to some extent the Pulmonic Syrup; that during our whole acquaintance with him he has sustained the character of an honorable and high-minded man, and that we should have every confidence in any statement he may make to the public relative to the Pulmonic Syrup.
We would farther state, of our own knowledge that we are satisfied that he was the first and only person that ever offered the Genuine Pulmonic Syrup to the public; that he made it here, and that numerous certificates of cures effected by the Pulmonic Syrup, some of which came under our own immediate observation, were published long before any office was established for its sale either in New York or Philadelphia.
We believe it our duty to guard the public against any statement contrary to this, and to the consequences that might arise from being deceived.
Member of Congress ISAAC G. FARLEE
County Clerk JOSEPH BESSON
Surrogate, G. C. SEYMOUR
Judges of the Court: SAMUEL HILL, ROBT K. READING & A. C. DAVIS
Members of the Bar: PETER J. CLARK, WM H. SLOAN, C. BARTLES, NATHANIEL SAXTON, JAMES N. READING, GEORGE A. ALLEN, and ALEX. WURTS
Merchants: J. G. & J. H. READING, AUGUSTUS FRISBIE, A. V. BONNELL, WM P. EMERY, JOHN P. FARLEE
Clergy: JAS. M. OLMSTEAD, CHAS. BARTOLETTE
Physicians: J. F. SCHENCK M.D., GEO. P. REX M.D., R. R. MERSHON M.D.
Postmaster: GEORGE W. RISLER
Citizens: JOHN H. CAPNER, MAHLON C. HART, PETER EWING, ASA JONES, WM R. MOORE, P. W. BURK, HUGH CAPNER, JOHN L. JONES, THOMAS GRAY, A. J. HOLCOMB, DAVID DUNHAM, AND HART WILSON.
There is a notable omission here. None of the people testifying to Mr. Schenck’s character had anything to say about the potion itself other than that they knew Mr. Schenck prepared it and were acquainted with people who had tried it. No doubt, Mr. Schenck composed the endorsement himself and managed to get signatures from these 37 notable people. Perhaps he rounded them up at Mahlon C. Hart’s Tavern (which became the Union Hotel). Today, of course, such testimonials from civil servants are not permitted. In fact, any connection with a regulated industry is now forbidden.
In addition to these important Flemington personages, there were the approved dealers in Schenck’s Syrup, listed in an ad of Jan. 29, 1846: Amassa [sic] Ely & Son of Lambertville; John W. Larison of Pleasant Corner in Raritan Twp.; Peter A. Van Cleef of Greenville (today’s Reaville); and O. & A. Kline of Clinton. In addition, one could visit the offices of the Hunterdon Gazette and buy the potion from the editor, Henry C. Buffington. Clearly, Mr. Schenck knew how to win over supporters.
For a while it seemed as if Schenck had the market to himself, but it wasn’t long before alternatives appeared. There was “Thompson’s Compound Syrup of Tar and Wood Naphtha,” which its producers claimed in an ad published on Jan. 14, 1846 in the Gazette was “daily effecting such remarkable cures in PULMONARY CONSUMPTION!” Tar and wood naptha sound like the sorts of things people turn to for protection against the COVID virus. Another alternative was Chief Brant’s “Indian Pulmonary Balsam.” As the name suggests, people felt that Native Americans had figured out how to treat this ancient disease long before the Europeans did, as shown in this ad for “Brant’s Indian Pulmonary Balsam” from the June 2, 1847 issue of the Gazette:
The Empiricism of our nation is well-nigh becoming proverbial. A strict sense of justice urges us imperatively to re-sort to those well-refined and simple preparations which being prepared from Native Production BY NATIVE HANDS, have produced the only actual cures ever made in these remarkably deadly diseases CONSUMPTION & SCROFULA, Asthma, Spitting of Blood, Coughs, Colds, Bronchitis, and all Pulmonary complaints.
By the 1850s, the prominence of Schenck’s Pulmonic Syrup had faded. It may have been due to competition or perhaps Mr. Schenck had retired from the business.
I find it remarkable that someone who had such extensive connections and advertised so widely never merited an obituary or any other personal notice in the local newspapers. Perhaps he picked up stakes and moved west, as so many others did. Whatever the case, he disappeared, along with his Syrup.
Here is a brief background the most prominent people endorsing Schenck’s Pulmonic Syrup.
Member of Congress ISAAC G. FARLEE.
Hon. Isaac Gray Farlee (1787-1855), son of John Farley Esq. and Anne Gray; married 1821 Theodosia Reading (1791-1858, daughter of John Reid Reading and Mary Ann Kennedy. Farlee was a Democrat who was elected to Congress for one term, 1843-44. Ran unsuccessfully for Governor in 1850. He was previously a Member of the State Assembly in 1819-21 and 1828-30 and was the first president of the new Hunterdon County National Bank in 1838.
County Clerk JOSEPH BESSON
Joseph Besson (1800-1849), son of Francis Besson and Elizabeth L. Thatcher, married in 1836, Catharine S. Jones (1819-1889), daughter of Sheriff Asa Jones and Elizabeth Servis; no known children. Besson served as Raritan Twp. clerk from the beginning of the township’s existence in 1838, at the same time that he was serving as clerk to the Board of Freeholders. In 1840, the Freeholders appointed Besson as County Collector, replacing Asher Atkinson was not as much of a partisan Democrat as Besson was. He was elected County Clerk in 1844, while continuing as clerk to Raritan Township. He died only five years later.
Surrogate, G. C. SEYMOUR
George Clinton Seymour (1809 Maryland – 1861 Maryland), son of William Seymour, married Elizabeth Morse, probably in Maryland, about 1834. He probably came to Flemington not long afterwards, because in 1839 he began publication of a new newspaper in Flemington called the Hunterdon County Democrat. Hubert G. Schmidt in The Press in Hunterdon County has a lot to say about Mr. Seymour and his antagonism toward the publisher of the Hunterdon Gazette, who was convinced that Seymour was elected Surrogate simply because he was a staunch Democrat.
Judges of the Court:
SAMUEL HILL, Esq. (1793 New Brunswick, NJ – 1858 Flemington), son of Samuel Hill and Elizabeth Opdycke, married in 1817 Aletta Van Neste (1787-1875), daughter of Abraham VanNeste and Catharine Sebring. It was about that time that he built his pottery works in Flemington, which he maintained until 1855, when he sold it to Abraham Fulper. His obituary, published in the Gazette on April 14, 1858, identified him as a Judge of the Court of Common Pleas for 20 years.
ROBT K. READING
Robert Kennedy Reading, Esq. (1790-1853), son of John Reid Reading and Mary Ann Kennedy, married about 1823 Catharine Maria Henry (1799-1874), daughter of Col. James Henry and Abigail Woodruff. In addition to being a Justice of the Court, he was trustee of the Flemington Presbyterian Church and a Justice of the Orphans Court. He maintained a valuable farm in Raritan Township and owned a great deal of other property.
A. C. DAVIS
Adam Chapin Davis, Esq. (1800-1861), son of Samuel Davis and Deborah Chapin, married in 1831 Abigail Alexander (1809-1897) daughter of innkeeper Thomas Alexander and Mary Lowrey, great granddaughter of Col. Thomas Lowrey. Like R. K. Reading, Adam C. Davis owned a great deal of property. (The Jubilee of 1826.) He aquired quite a bit of real estate in the 1830s and 1840s, but by 1850 had removed to Trenton. This was temporary as he was living in Lambertville in 1860, identified as a surveyor.
Members of the Bar:
PETER J. CLARK, Esq.
Peter Imlay Clark (1790-1863), son of Rev. Joseph Clark and Margaret Imlay, married in 1824 in Trenton Cynthia Risley (1796-1891), daughter of David Risley and Cynthia Gillette. Peter I. Clark’s name was often confused as Peter J. Clark. He moved to Flemington to practice law in 1815 and became a very prominent member of the bar. He was elected to the Legislative Council (the State Senate) in 1831 and ran for governor more than once on opposition tickets. He was elected President of the Hunterdon Bible Society soon after Schenck’s ad appeared. (The Jubilee of 1826.)
WM H. SLOAN, Esq.
William H. Sloan (1799-1850), son of Rev. William B. Sloan and Mary Perrine, married in 1835, Caroline Imlay (1809-1890), daughter of Robert Imlay, a Philadelphia merchant.3 He studied law in the office of Peter I. Clark after graduating from Princeton. He became a prominent figure in Flemington, owned several lots on Main Street. In 1833 he was elected to the General Assembly and in 1835 because Surrogate until 1840.
C. BARTLES, Esq.
Charles Bartles, Esq. (1801-1883), son of Andrew Bartles and Catharine Plum of Tewksbury, married c.1832, Eliza Hart (1811-1845), daughter of innkeeper Neal Hart and Sarah Moore. He began his career teaching school until 1822 when he entered the law office of Nathaniel Saxton and was admitted to the Bar two years later. In addition to law, Charles Bartles was major real estate investor, in partnership with Aaron Vansyckle, Jr. 4
NATHANIEL SAXTON, Esq.
At the time the ad of 1845 was published, Nathaniel Saxton (1777-1850) was the oldest lawyer in Flemington. Saxton, who never married, was the son of Charles Saxton & Elizabeth Pelton of Hopewell Twp. He began the study of law with Lucius W. Stockton, who was County Clerk at the time, and was admitted to the Bar in 1804. The next year he took up surveying and was authorized to survey the road from Trenton to Flemington. Like many of his cohorts, he was active in the Flemington Presbyterian Church. His house was shown on the 1822 map of Flemington in Snell’s History of Hunterdon County, located near the corner of Main and Mine Streets, “and since removed.”5
JAMES N. READING, Esq.
Col. James Newell Reading (1808-1884), son of Joseph Reading & Eleanor N. Grandin, married in 1835 Sarah Celia A. Southard (1815-1896), daughter of Isaac Southard, Esq. and Mary Wright Doty. Reading was also a graduate of Princeton. After establishing a successful law practice, Reading moved to Illinois where he died at age 75. He was highly regarded in both locations. In the 1840s he was active in the Whig party and also served as a colonel in the local militia. Like Charles Bartles, Reading had extensive real estate investments, and also managed to obtain the beautiful Mahlon Fisher building for his offices. (The Fisher-Reading Mansion.) Soon after 1850, Reading and wife moved to Illinois and sold their properties through agents.
GEORGE A. ALLEN, Esq.
George Anderson Allen (1822-1878), whose parents I have not identified, was born in Westport, Connecticut. He married in 1850 Mary Bonnell (1822-1904), daughter of Charles Bonnell and Margaret Anderson of Flemington. He studied law in the office of James N. Reading and was admitted to the Bar only one year before endorsing Schenck’s Syrup. He was instrumental in the creation of the Hunterdon Republican newspaper in 1856.
ALEX. WURTS, Esq.
Here we have one of those remarkable oddities. Alexander Wurts, born 1799 in Flanders, Morris County, married in 1831 Mary Bonnell (1805-1892), daughter of Alexander V. Bonnell and Catharine Mattison, making her the aunt of the Mary Bonnell who married George A. Allen. Again another Princeton graduate, he studied law in Philadelphia before moving to Flemington in 1819. In 1824 he was elected to the General Assembly, and in 1844 participated in the NJ Constitutional Convention. He was elected first Vice President and then as president of the Convention. (The Jubilee of 1826.)
Twenty-four additional gentlemen were named, but I must end the biographies here. Many of them have been mentioned in previous articles and will likely turn up in future ones.
Thanks to Maria P. Corpuz (my daughter-in-law) for her help in understanding in what ways advertising has changed. I also want to thank my linguist son, Ben Zimmer, for coming up with the phrase “Pulmonic Tonic.” It’s surprising that Schenck didn’t think of it.
- The word for tuberculosis did not come into use until 1832 and was not generally used until many years later. ↩
- Per Wikipedia, the pulmonic valve is located in the heart and “directs deoxygenated blood to the lungs.” ↩
- No doubt Margaret Imlay Clark and Robert Imlay were related in some way; I confess I have not done the research. ↩
- Bartles has been mentioned frequently in these articles; the best way to find them is to simply to a search on his name. ↩
- Like Chas. Bartles, Nath’l Saxton appears frequently here. A search on his name should produce a list with links. ↩