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.