Jones Rexall

Jones Rexall


Thousands of Rexall Drug Stores fronted Main Street in communities throughout the nation for eight decades of the 20th century. Most were locally owned, and all possessed an exclusive franchise for Rexall brand merchandise in their town or section of a city. Actively supporting Rexall Stores were the management and advertising departments, factories and distribution networks comprising the vast corporate body of United Drug Company and its successor, Rexall Drug Company. Followers of this Blog will see gradual publishing of histories, vintage photographs and memorabilia acquired during twenty-five years of research and collecting—glimpses of the Rexall phenomenon and personalities that drove its creation and success.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Dyspepsia, Mad Men and Captain Rexall

Dyspepsia is an ancient term that translates simply as bad digestion. Man’s stomach has been a vulnerable target area since he first began putting things in his mouth, and judging from the number of modern medications designed to counteract indigestion, bloating, nausea and heartburn, resistance to the affliction hasn’t improved much.

As an example of the malady's long-standing assault on Americans, in the fall of 1902 when founders of United Drug Company outlined their fundamental principles of operation, one item on the list declared that the first advertised product would be a “dyspepsia cure.” Title of the new preparation was purposely straightforward, Rexall Dyspepsia Tablets, and in the absence of today’s H2 blockers and proton pump inhibitors, active ingredients were drawn from the existing armamentarium: bismuth subnitrate, magnesium oxide, rhubarb, cassia and pepsin. Although the formula was omitted from the package label, such information was available on request from the Rexall druggist per United Drug’s tenet of “non-secret” remedies.

Box of Rexall Dyspepsia Tablets circa 1910
 Louis K. Liggett, secretary and general manager at the time, firmly believed in the power of advertising. If anyone in those first months suspected him of lacking boldness, those suspicions would have been quickly shattered. A large chunk of the initial capital, more than $100,000, went into national newspaper advertising, about which Liggett confidently stated, “Its effect will live as long as the United Drug Company continues to advertise Rexall to the people.”

The Dyspepsia Tablets promotion was launched through an ingenious newspaper advertising scheme that not only promoted the product but also dramatically introduced the Rexall trademark to the nation. In a six-day installment series of large drawings, the letters that spell REXALL were successively revealed: “R” the first day (usually a Monday), “RE” on Tuesday, “REX” on Wednesday, and so forth. The large letters were presented as guidons, held aloft by “soldier kids” of assorted nationalities that scurried to attention in front of the commanding figure of Captain Rexall and a diminutive Sergeant Chub. The absence of captions and other explanation made the daily insertions quite mysterious and intriguing. Later, some preliminary ad copy released by United Drug as “news” items referred to the Captain in a masculine sense, but the corseted overcoat and general features of the character were easily perceived as feminine. One candid reporter working for the Morning Herald in Lexington, Kentucky eliminated confusion for his readers by dubbing the officer an “attractive Amazon.”

   The initial 1/3-page panel shows Captain Rexall ordering Private Rider
to bring up the "R" guidon. With no explanatory text attached to the first 
four daily installments, one can imagine the curiosity they created 
(The Evening Herald, Syracuse, New York, Monday, March 30, 1903).
   Wednesday's panel shows Privates Rider, Cossack and Scot
   forming a cryptic REX.

   In the Friday panel Pvt. Kaiser and Pvt. Arrowhead have 
 joined the line and Pvt. Chang is bringing up his "L" 
to complete the mystery word REXALL. 
In the cartoon panel appearing on the fifth day (Friday), subtitled “General Orders No. 2706,” the local merchant for the product was revealed and it was announced that 100 full size (25¢) packages of Rexall Dyspepsia Tablets would be given away free the next day to the first 100 “prisoners of Dyspepsia” visiting the drugstore. By bringing up both “L”s on Friday, the word “R-E-X-A-L-L” was suddenly visible, and on Saturday a bold image of the full trademark was again displayed. The ad copy assured that after 100 gratis packages were distributed, anyone paying the 25 cents purchase price without full satisfaction would receive a cash refund. Saturday's General Orders No. 4335 presumed the distributed packages were equivalent to “500 well directed shots” against the enemy dyspepsia. Massachusetts druggists Hayes & Pierson Co., however, placed an ad the following Monday in the Fitchburg Sentinel suggesting not all the free goods had flown out of the store—“As Saturday’s rain prevented many from obtaining a free box of Rexall Dyspepsia Tablets, distribution will continue on Tuesday.”

   Saturday's panel shows all the little soldiers at attention with their lettered guidons.
The April 4, 1903 insertion completed a 6-day series for the Syracuse, NY agent.
Another “news item” appearing elsewhere in the Saturday edition proclaimed, “Intense Interest Created, the Maneuvers and Generalship of Captain Rexall and the Little Army Create the most Unique Series of Advertisements ever produced.” The article implied more than once that the series was the invention of the local druggist, and claimed that unbounded curiosity about the daily spelling out of REXALL had increased sales of the local newspaper. At the same time the equivocal copywriter diverted credit away from the druggist by stating, “months of hard thought were required to perfect such an idea, and to work out such a plan it is necessary to have artists, good ones at that, and a trained corps of writers.” He also announced that Dyspepsia Tablets were part of a forthcoming line of medicines, the Rexall Remedies, each one formulated for a specific human ailment, and each one sold with a money back guarantee. Such rhetoric was part of a concerted effort to place Rexall Remedies in a more professional light and avoid association with “cure-alls” that were increasingly the object of negative attention in the popular press.

The first people to puzzle over the series of cartoon panels resided in eastern towns like Worcester, Massachusetts (served by Rexall agent Hall & Lyon Co.) and Syracuse, New York (H.D. Dwight & Co.). This was in March 1903. The promotion commenced in Janesville, Wisconsin (Smith Drug Co.) in early April, while some relatively remote communities like Boise, Idaho (Charles L. Joy & Co.) waited until July 1904 to enjoy the series.

Americanitis Elixir 
Circa 1910
The charming Captain and her kids were also marched over the media parade ground to promote other products. In November 1906 they were on active duty in a newspaper ad that touted Americanitis Elixir, a tonic containing glycophosphates for the nervous exhaustion reportedly suffered by 20th century urban Americans. By that time the line of specifics had expanded to some 300 different packages with the tagline, "One Remedy for each human ill." The lovable kids, on maneuvers without the Captain in sight, were seen sprinkling Rexall “93” Hair Tonic on a bald pate in a Statesville, North Carolina newspaper in the spring of 1907.

James T. Wetherald circa 1920.
Courtesy Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute.
James Taylor Wetherald, treasurer of United Drug Co., president of Vinol’s Chester Kent & Co., and veteran advertising man was the probable creative force behind the Captain Rexall promotion. He previously logged 14 years of success in marketing products for the Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Co., a Lynn, Massachusetts manufacturer of medicinal remedies for women. Pinkham owned a well established trademark—the matronly portrait of Lydia Pinkham herself—and used it extensively for package and print advertising. Effectiveness of the image likely influenced Wetherald and Liggett to cast the Captain in a maternal role, cleverly blending it with a military theme to yield a persona that would appeal to both male and female consumers.

United Drug Company’s debut advertising campaign was intensive, elaborate and expensive, and managed to generate varying degrees of surprise and apprehension among the shareholders—concerns that landed on the desk of general manager Louis Liggett. In his first of many “Dear Pardner” letters addressed to Rexall agents, mailed out in mid-May 1903, Liggett defended the program in a reassuring and paternal tone that quickly became a hallmark of his leadership:

   “…Touching on the advertising questions, I want to say a few words about our Rexall work. Some of you have wondered how we were going to make a 25c Dyspepsia Cure pay for all the big space we are using. Didn't you realize that your Executive Committee had carefully considered this subject? Did you not see that we were first aiming to introduce the word "REXALL", second to sell Dyspepsia Cure, and won't you now agree with us in thinking that your Executive Committee was right, that the daily spelling of the word REXALL cost money, but didn't it catch in your town? And isn’t it today a word that is as well known to the drug buyers as almost any medicine you have on your shelf? And think of it, we’ve only been at the game ten weeks, yet Rexall is established in the minds of the people and it has left a pleasing impression too with the clever "kids" and Captain Rexall, to say nothing of the great prominence given your store—that is one point you must not overlook, no matter how much or how little Dyspepsia Cure you have sold…
    We're going on the bill boards in July with the greatest poster out; twelve and one sheets galore, and there won't be a man, woman or child in your town July 4th who doesn’t  have an intimate acquaintance with Captain Rexall and her kids…
    Now I know you’re aching for some news of the inside working of the laboratory. We’re in good running order now. Just five months ago we had a bare building, five levels with over six thousand feet to a floor. We wondered how we were going to fill it; and now we’re wondering what we are going to do for more manufacturing room next fall.
    So as to show you that we’ve not been asleep I will give you some figures. February last we had a dozen employees, on March 1st we had sixty, and today we are pushing the one hundred and fifty mark. From March 15th to April 15th we turned out 200,000 packages of Dyspepsia Cure, making the tablets, boxes, labels, booklets and everything pertaining to the package in our own plant. We have kept our Printing Dep’t with its four big presses and six printers a full month behind in their work. We have increased our stockholders from 40 to 251—more agents than there were for Vinol at the end of their third year. We have kept our electrotype foundry running steadily until after hours, to say nothing of our Advertising Manager, we’ve made an owl of him, and we haven’t made any costly mistakes as far as we can see today. We have designed, and made entirely in our plant, fifty complete packages of patent medicine—that was no small task, almost one a day, and of the whole lot we had trouble with one formula only. Doesn’t that speak well for our department heads and their ability to get good work out of their employees?” 

  Fourth of July parade float with Captain Rexall at the reins and five soldier kids on the ground. Sponsor was C. M. Wyrick, Rexall agent in Bellaire, Ohio. Circa 1908.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

History of Rexall - the short version

Rexall was the brainchild of Louis Kroh Liggett, a Detroit patent medicine salesman who created a manufacturing cooperative for franchised drugstores at the turn of the 20th century. Liggett's marketing genius enabled independent druggists to profit from enhanced store and product identity combined with national advertising. While the cooperative venture endured for decades, the brand name survived even longer. Today, many bright orange and blue Rexall Drug signs remain on buildings across the U.S. because of their iconic appeal.

In 1898, 23-year old Liggett was working out of Boston, Massachusetts, urging the retail drug trade to sell a bottled tonic called "Vinol" made from wine and cod livers. The nostrum had been sold on the open market with only fair success until Liggett fielded the idea for a limited franchise plan that would help eliminate the self-destructive practice of price cutting. Approaching the leading druggist in each town, Liggett offered an agency contract for Vinol. In return, the drugstore would enjoy company sponsored local and national advertising as well as a monopoly on repeat sales in his area. The plan was well received and proved to be a winner.

Dealer promotion for Vinol, 1912
As Vinol sales soared, instilling confidence in the new method of distribution, Liggett proposed forming an organization to manufacture and distribute a broader range of products. Each shareholder would participate in profitability, both from the manufacturing division as well as retail sales. Discussions centered around formulating drug items from quality materials, labeling with a uniform trade-name, and selling under a “money-back” guarantee. The products would be sold to stockholders at a modest advance over cost that included ample margin to secure advertising. Liggett was encouraged by the responsive chord he struck in the minds of druggists he surveyed, and his new cooperative plan was soon presented for capitalization.

In the fall of 1902, a group of drugstore owners and other investors met in Chicago. Forty of them, including Liggett, agreed to purchase stock in the amount of $4,000, creating $160,000 capital to launch the new company. The organization was chartered as United Drug Company, and “Rexall,” signifying “King of all,” was registered as the primary trademark. A small factory building in the Roxbury district of Boston was leased, production and printing machinery installed, and amazingly, the first orders of Rexall proprietary medicines were shipped in mid-March 1903.
Original factory, Boston 1905
 A candy making department was the next installation, followed by one for perfumery in 1905. Stationery and fountain supplies were added in 1910, rubber goods in 1912, brushes in 1913 and hospital items in 1919. Following World War I, sales greatly exceeded the Boston plant’s production capacity, leading to construction of new factories in St. Louis, Missouri that were opened in 1920. That same year United Drug Company expanded their business in the United Kingdom by purchasing Boots Pure Drug Co., Ltd. for $10 million. With laboratories and main offices in Nottingham, the deal also included 627 “Boot’s Cash Chemists” shops and four manufacturing plants in England and Scotland. Ownership of these stores and factories continued until 1933 when British interests repurchased the Boots stock for $32 million.

Louis K. Liggett in 1920.         Photo by Paul Thompson
Rexall’s version of the "One Cent Sale" (two items for the price of one, plus 1 cent) was introduced nationally in 1915 (see more here); and by late 1920 the number of Rexall agents worldwide reached 10,000. The famous One Cent Sales and other unique promotions helped the company and most of the franchised dealers survive the depressed economy during World War I and throughout the 1930’s.

Justin W. Dart 1952
Photo by Curtis Studios, Los Angeles
Justin Whitlock Dart became president of United Drug Company in 1943. Within four years he moved headquarters from Boston to Los Angeles and altered the corporate name to Rexall Drug Company. His plan embraced three far-reaching objectives: modernized packaging, improved Rexall store and product identification, and augmented national advertising. Rexall-sponsored radio shows such as Jimmy Durante, Amos 'n' Andy, and Phil Harris & Alice Faye, along with television specials and full-page magazine and newspaper ads contributed greatly to Rexall achieving immense popularity and patronage. The hearty greeting, “Good Health to all From Rexall” was a standard on radio and TV programs. All points of Dart's plan were gradually achieved and “Rexall” became a household word that equaled “drugstore” in common usage.

Christmas 1949 Rexall Radio Show
In the 1950's many large companies began to diversify with the growing economy, and Rexall Drug was no exception. Primary acquisitions were in chemicals and plastics, including the purchase of Tupper Corp. in 1958 for $16 million. A corporate name change to Rexall Drug and Chemical Company took place in 1959, and expanding interests prompted yet another metamorphosis ten years later to Dart Industries, with Rexall Drug Company organized as a division.

In 1977, Dart Industries sold Rexall Drug Company to a group of private investors that eventually eliminated the franchised dealerships. Rexall products were promoted to a larger market, including super drugstore chains, and the original character of the Rexall manufacturing/distribution system vanished. The drastic change in marketing policy didn’t last long. By 1986 the Rexall Corp. factory in St Louis closed and remaining assets were sold to an investment group in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida that specialized in vitamin supplements.

In retrospect, the corporate philosophies that guided Rexall over the decades were of two schools, each reflecting leadership of the men that successively charted the firm’s course. Louis Liggett focused on cooperative manufacturing and distribution of drugstore merchandise to his own chain and to franchised independent dealers. Justin Dart, consistent with the times, saw the need for diversification, and eventually regarded the retail sector as burdened with profit-eating overhead. He eliminated company-owned stores and personnel that were judged to be of marginal value. Dart also ventured into new manufacturing and distribution areas such as plastics and direct sales that were sometimes phenomenally successful, such as Tupperware, and sometimes not, like the Vanda Beauty Counselor enterprise that failed to rival Avon.   

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

How I became hooked on Rexall

From 1967 to 1982 I worked as a pharmacist in several Northern California Rexall drugstores—ultra visible to sidewalk traffic because of their bright blue and orange color schemes. During those years I handled various lines of merchandise, both OTC and Rx, experienced the frantically popular One Cent Sales, and became acquainted with representatives of the company. A few years later, in 1986, a chance encounter of seemingly small consequence triggered the beginning of 25-years of rather serious collecting and investigating related to the Rexall brand. A pharmacy clerk who was familiar with my passion for “old pharmacy stuff” spotted a small box in a storeroom and brought it to my attention. The item was labeled “Rexall Cold Sore Lotion,” and after some rummaging around we determined the little amber bottle and its colorful carton was the last surviving example of Rexall merchandise that once filled the store. The pharmacy's franchise, like thousands of other Rexall stores in the country, had been abandoned by Rexall Corp. of St. Louis in 1982.

Experience as an antique bottle collector taught me the desirability of anything produced by The Owl Drug Company—a chain of stores that had come and gone on the Pacific Coast during the fifty years before World War II. Gazing at the small Rexall remedy I realized that here too was a tiny vestige of a huge commercial venture that suddenly was no more—a nationwide organization of druggists that touched many lives for many years and now was all but vanished. At the same time, a bit of nostalgia came over me as I recalled flashes of good times enjoyed at our local Rexall stores during my adolescent years in suburban Los Angeles.

    Montrose Pharmacy, corner Honolulu & Ocean View 1942
Tujunga Rexall Drugs, corner Foothill & Commerce circa 1960
The search was on. For many years I haunted flea markets and antique shops from California to New England looking for Rexall consumer goods, and placed want ads in collector magazines to lure things out of the closet and medicine chest. The gratifying result: ancient bottles of Rexall Hair Tonic, cellophane-wrapped boxes of Plenamins capsules, and Rexall fish bowls found their way to my door. Then, in 1998—eBay! As the collection grew, and significant design/age differences became apparent, my curiosity about the history of Rexall shifted into high gear. I soon discovered the founding corporation, United Drug Company, had no surviving archives, and compiling a competent history would require some traveling.

1940 Cardboard Token   –   Neon sidewalk sign circa 1936
 The subsequent quest has been occasionally frustrating, often rewarding, and always fascinating. I’ve been welcomed into the homes of retired executives, salesmen and store owners for interviews and to receive generous contributions of photos, products and other memorabilia for my collection. I’ve toured the former United Drug Company office and factory buildings in Boston where cooperative manufacturing and the Rexall trademark were brilliantly combined in 1903 by marketing genius, Louis K. Liggett. Over the years I’ve gathered business files, photos, magazines, audio and video recordings of Rexall-sponsored radio and TV shows. Visits have been made to universities and the Library of Congress to study documents and publications of United Drug and individual Rexall drugstores. One collectible I’ve come to appreciate as a rich source of pictorial history is the vintage picture postcard. Street scenes often show drugstores identified with Rexall signs along with displays of merchandise in the windows. And a real treat is the postcard that reveals a store interior.

Earnshaw Drug Co., East Greenwich RI, 1948

Monday, June 6, 2011

Olfactory memories

    For me, the greatest trigger for nostalgia, déjà vu, and other unplanned trips to the past has been odor. Not a visual image, not a familiar sound, but smell. Corn dogs frying in deep fat carries me back to the midway of the Clyde Beatty Circus in Los Angeles; fresh cut pine transports me to a grove of Boy Scout Christmas trees propped up for sale in a vacant lot; a musty room reminds me of the cabin on Balboa Island we rented one summer when I was twelve. Another experience, nearly extinct in real time but strongly ingrained in my olfactory memory is relived in a unique environment—the drugstore.
     I don't mean today's super-stores. They take on odors typical of the caverns in which they are housed—air conditioning, floor wax, gardening supplies. I'm referring to the small neighborhood pharmacies that acquired their characteristic fragrance during years of activity. It takes decades to build up that medicinal perfume—vapors penetrating wallpaper and woodwork, pungent extracts saturating bottle labels, spilled liniments and colognes seeping under linoleum and into floor boards, regenerated by the daily tread of busy feet.
   Vintage drugstore odor is not easily defined, it is complex—a combination of volatile oils like lavender and wintergreen mingled with iodine, benzoin, carbolic acid, thymol and other aromatics. Whenever I stumble across one of these old survivors, the fumes take me back to my childhood and memories of the wonderful array of merchandise that was a drugstore: penny candy, fountain sodas, comic books, hair oil, chemicals for science projects and rubber tubing for sling shots. Does all this sound somewhat familiar? Your own recollections may take you back to Walgreens or Village Corner Drug, but for me it was the neighborhood Rexall Store.
Farrand's Rexall Pharmacy
Sumner, Iowa circa 1913