Van Horn & Ellison, Chemists, New York

Alfred VanHorn and George (Guy) R.P. Ellison started the business in 1888 opening a drug store on the northwest corner of Park Avenue and 41st Street in New York City. The first listing I can find for VanHorn & Ellison is in the 1889 Copartnership and Corporation Directory with an address of 120 Park Avenue (at the corner of 41st Street). A year or two later, they opened a prescription department and laboratory in the same area at 61 East 41st Street. An item in the 1891 Medical Directory of the City of New York announced the opening.

We call special attention of physicians to our complete Analytical and Pharmaceutical Laboratory, which we have established in connection with our new Prescription Department, in separate rooms entirely removed from the general business of the store.

Hospital and Surgeons’ Supplies, Felt and Wood Splints, Catgut warranted perfectly Antiseptic. Surgeons’ Silk, Silver Suture Wire, and Silk-worm Gut.

Reef and Flat Sponges prepared and sterilized to order for surgical operations.

A complete assortment of superior materials for Antiseptic Dressings, made especially for us by Seabury & Johnson.

A partial photograph of the sterilizing laboratory was included in a Van Horn & Ellison advertisement printed in Merck’s 1896 Index.

In 1895 the company opened a second location underneath the Bolkenhayn apartment house adjoining the Hotel Savoy at Fifth Avenue and 58th Street. An article in the Pharmaceutical Record announcing the stores opening called it the largest and handsomest retail drug store that New York or any other large city in the United States can boast of and it describes the exterior of the new store this way.

Describing the new drug store can best be done by stating that it looks about as little like the ordinary drug store as it is possible to imagine. The immense front facing on Fifth Avenue is taken up by a sheet of plate glass that is claimed to be the largest in the United States. It measures 19 feet x 13 feet 3 inches, and is said to be American plate, the largest that has ever been made here.

An old photograph of the Savoy Hotel shows the Bolkenhayn apartment house to the right with the drug store’s plate glass windows clearly visible.

The salesroom was located on the ground floor with the prescription, chemical and sterilizing departments located on the floor below. The article goes on to describe the store’s interior, leaving no doubt that the store catered to the high end customer:

Potted palms and plants adorn the window, which is also graced by four elegant specimens of the colored window bottles on the side. Two sprays of electric lights illuminate these at night.

Inside the salesrooms the general effect of quiet elegance is obtained by a combination of mahogany and plate glass in side cases and moveable counters. A pleasing contrast is also occasionally furnished by stained glass doors and panels. The ceiling is of a buff, with artistic plaster relief work, while from it depend four elegantly carved metal electroliers of four lights each. The side walls are an olive green with gold plaster relief decoration, while the floor is a pretty mosaic tiling.

As if that wasn’t enough, taking up a large portion of one side of the salesroom was a soda fountain whose counter was made up of four different colors of Numidian marble.

Behind the wrapping counter was a dumbwaiter and a speaking tube that connected with the dispensing and chemical departments. Orders were either sent down by means of the tube or the prescription was shunted down on the dumbwaiter.

According to the article, the store furnished just about anything in the drug line, but only high-end items were exhibited in the salesroom.

Only fancy articles for the toilet and boudoir are to be seen in the salesrooms proper. Combs and brushes, toilet waters and cologne, tooth powders, manicure ointments and the dainty appurtenances greet the eye.

This advertisement for the Crown Perfumery Co., of London England, provides a good example of the type of articles they showcased. The advertisement was for “The New Crown Violet,” a perfume “distilled from the natural flowers of the Riviera” and referred to as the “finest violet made and the success of the day in London and Paris.” It sold for $1.50 per bottle and Van Horn & Ellison was named in the advertisement as one of its five suppliers in New York.

Van Horn & Ellison incorporated in New York sometime in 1896. According to an item that year in the “Paint, Oil and Chemical Review:”

Incorporation papers have been secured by Van Horn & Ellison of New York, to carry on a chemical business; capital $100,000. Directors – G.R.P. Ellison, H.W.Robinson, J.Van L. Young, Alfred Van Horn and S. Harry Ellison of New York City.

A year later, in June of 1897, Alfred Van Horn had resigned and internal dissension within the corporation led to charges of forgery against George Ellison based on a technicality. Ellison admitted to having endorsed and collected checks made payable to the firm, but claimed that he had that right. His statement in response to the charges was printed in the New York Sun.

After the resignation of Alfred Van Horn as President I controlled the majority of stock. Mr. Van Horn and I had always stood together in the Board of Directors. Since Mr. Van Horn’s resignation I have been compelled to contend against the majority of the directors. There were five directors in the corporation. Besides Mr. Van Horn and myself there were S.H. Ellison, treasurer; Dr. J. Van Loren Young, secretary, and H.W.Robinson, who has no interest, but holds one share of stock to qualify him as a director.

These last three directors combined against me because I had called a meeting of the stockholders to amend the by-laws of the company in such a manner that their powers would be curtailed, and because at the annual election to be held in July others would be elected to fill their places. S.H. Ellison, Dr. Young and Robinson refused to give me money due me by the corporation. After consulting my counsel he advised me to take the course I did in regard to the endorsement of checks. Now they have tried to take advantage of a technical point to force me out.

It’s not clear how this issue was resolved but less than six months later an item in the January 1898 issue of the Pharmaceutical Record indicated that  the business had changed it’s name to Van Horn & Co. The 1900 and 1901 NYC Copartnership and Corporation Directories listed Van Horn & Co. as a New Jersey Corporation located in Manhattan at the 118-120 Park Avenue address. Interestingly none of the original directors, including Van Horn and Ellison were listed with the business. Instead George West and Harry Hutchinson were named President and Secretary respectively and the capital was only listed as $5,000.

It’s likely that the incorporation of the company and subsequent absence of Alfred Van Horn and Guy Ellison from company leadership in 1900 and 1901 was somehow related to financial problems that the company was having. In 1900, the Bureau of Arrears for the Collection of Personal Taxes listed Van Horn & Ellison as a defendant with their ‘disposition pending.” A year later, in September, 1901, both Van Horn and Ellison declared bankruptcy. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle printed their bankruptcy notices on September, 20th and 27th respectively.

 

Then in the 1902 Directory George Ellison and Alfred Van Horn are back, listed as president and secretary respectively of Van Horn & Co., which had moved to 307 Madison Avenue. The treasurer of the company was Edward T. Sawtell.

Around this time it appears that the company divided into two separate corporations. In the 1904 NYC Copartnership and Corporation Directory Van Horn & Co. remained listed as a New Jersey corporation with Ellison as president and Van Horn as secretary and a New York corporation, Van Horn & Sawtell appeared for the first time. Alfred Van Horn and Edward Sawtell were listed as president and treasurer respectively of the new company.

Ultimately both George Ellison and Alfred Van Horn ended up working with Johnson & Johnson. Ellison apparently started with them after Van Horn & Co. dissolved in 1911. The June 1913 issue of the Northwestern Druggist reported:

Guy R.P. Ellison, formerly of the firm of Van Horn & Ellison, New York, is now with Johnson & Johnson as detail representative. Mr. Ellison will spend about a month in the Twin Cities. He is especially posted in the manufacture of ligatures and in the scientific departments of his firm.

Van Horn began with Johnson & Johnson in 1919 when they acquired Van Horn & Sawtell. The acquisition was reported in Red Cross notes that year.

Johnson & Johnson has taken over the well known firm of Van Horn & Sawtell of New York, and have made it the Van Horn & Sawtell Department of Johnson & Johnson. This consolidation means the continuation of a policy of progress, a gratifying increase of laboratory facilities and the addition of Mr. E.T. Sawtell and Mr. Alfred Van Horn to the personnel of the Johnson & Johnson organization.

The bottle I found is a small, mouth blown, maybe one ounce, cobalt blue medicine bottle. “Van Horn & Ellison (in script), Chemists, New York” is embossed on the front. The 1895 article announcing the opening of their Fifth Avenue location provides a clue about the use of the bottle:

In the dispensing department only two kinds of bottles were used – white and blue. The blue was only used when the contents were for external use or were poisonous.

The bottle dates to the period between 1888 and 1897, when the company name was Van Horn & Ellison.

McKesson & Robbins, New York

McKesson & Robbins was a predecessor to the McKesson Corporation, a global health provider that was ranked 11th of the Fortune 500 in 2014 with more than $179 billion in annual revenue.

According to the company history that’s presented on McKesson’s corporate web site the company dates back to 1833.

John McKesson and Charles Olcott, two young entrepreneurs, opened Olcott & McKesson, a drug import and wholesale business located on Maiden Lane in Manhattan. The company quickly thrived with it’s first customers – captains of the tall masted clipper ships that docked nearby. In 1853, Daniel Robbins, who originally started as an apprentice in 1833 after walking 80 miles to answer McKesson’s first help-wanted ad, became a partner and the company was renamed McKesson & Robbins.

I’ll leave open to speculation as to whether Robbins actually walked 80 miles to answer McKesson’s help-wanted advertisement, but I will point out that according to his obituary, in 1833 he was living 80 miles north of Manhattan in Poughkeepsie New York.

The limited NYC directories I can find from this period generally confirm the rest of the early story. The 1847-48 Directory (the earliest one I could find) listed Alcott, McKesson & Co., druggists, at 127 Maiden Lane. Charles M. Alcott, John McKesson and Daniel C. Robbins were all listed individually at 127 Maiden Lane as well. By 1853-54, the business was listed as Olcott, McKesson & Robbins and then in the 1855-56 Directory it was listed for the first time as McKesson & Robbins.

Around 1857 the company moved from Maiden Lane to a new building on Fulton Street. According to “Cast-Iron Architecture in America, The Significance of James Borardus” by Margot Gayle and Carol Gayle:

John McKesson and Daniel Robbins, who had a drug business at 127 Maiden Lane, purchased property for a new building in the spring of 1853. They bought a 50 foot wide double lot at 91-93 Fulton Street and soon added two smaller lots to the rear facing on Ann Street. Probably in 1855 they commissioned (James) Bogardus to build a five-story iron front on the Fulton Street lot.

The 1857-58 NYC Directory listed them at 91 Fulton Street and 82 Ann Street where the business remained through at least the mid-1920’s.

Over the course of the next two decades, both McKesson’s son, John McKesson Jr. and Robbins’s sons, Charles A. Robbins and Herbert D. Robbins joined the business.

According to McKesson’s corporate web site, during this period, McKesson & Robbins pioneered the development of gelatin coated pills. A full page advertisement in the August  1879 issue of the New York Medical Electric (Devoted to Reformed Medicine, General Science and Literature) provided a partial list of medications that they produced utilizing this process. The advertisement stated that “these important changeable substances will be found perfectly preserved in our Gelatine-Coated Pills.” Interestingly, the list included both Cannabis Indica (medical marijuana) and Coca Exythroxylon (cocaine).

In December of 1885, Copartnership Notices published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle announced that McKesson & Robbins had been dissolved and a new firm with the same name had been formed along with another company called the New York Quinine and Chemical Works. The notice listed John McKesson Jr. and Herbert Robbins with McKesson and Robbins. That business, described as wholesale druggists and manufacturing chemists, remained at the original location which now included 91-93 Fulton Street and 74-84 Ann Street.

Charles A. Robbins was listed with the New York Quinine and Chemical Works. Their office was located at 35 Liberty Street, but soon after they moved to 114 William Street, within a block of McKesson & Robbins. Their Eastern District factory was located in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. They were described as manufacturers of medicinal chemical preparations.

Daniel C Robbins remained associated with both firms and on December 3, 1885, the Eagle published a letter from Daniel Robbins explaining the reasoning behind the need for two companies.

Some eighteen months since the great Italian factory at Milan, which manufactured nearly one-half of all the quinine consumed in the world, failed, and Dr. Charles A. Robbins, who was educated in Germany for the purpose of conducting a similar establishment in the United States, and who had for seven years superintended the chemical productions connected with the house of McKesson & Robbins, advised the employment and transfer of trained experts connected with the Milan establishment to the United States.

Fourteen lots have been purchased in the Eastern District, a factory has been built and a corps of Italians and Germans have been transferred to the United States.

Through the early 1920’s, both companies remained closely controlled by the McKesson and Robbins families and were apparently associated in some way. In fact, when Daniel C. Robbins died suddenly in 1888, Herbert Robbins was named president of the New York Quinine and Chemical Company and also continued to remain listed as a principal of McKesson and Robbins. As late as 1919, the Copartnership and Corporation Directories listed John McKesson Jr. as president of McKesson and Robbins and Herbert D. Robbins as president of the New York Quinine & Chemical Company and a Vice President in McKesson & Robbins.

Both companies were involved in the importing and manufacturing of cocaine in the United States. According to “Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States 1884-1920” by Joseph Spillane:

Before 1884 the New York firm of McKesson & Robbins was among the leading importers of coca and one of the few companies that offered small amounts of cocaine to its customers in that period. Although McKesson & Robbins was primarily a wholesale drug company, it also imported and manufactured some drug products, including cocaine. The company claimed to be the first and largest cocaine manufacturer in the United States, making all of its product from coca leaves imported into New York. Coca importation data from the late 1880’s confirm that McKesson imported between 20 and 30 percent of all leaves entering New York each year, usually the largest proportion of any single manufacturer. The families who controlled McKesson & Robbins also owned the New York Quinine and Chemical Works, which gradually took over the cocaine business from McKesson.

McKesson & Robbins also controlled at least two additional companies, the Tartarlithine Co., and the Galen Drug Co. Both were listed in the directories at the McKesson & Robbins Fulton Street and/or Ann Street addresses. The Tartarlithine Co. was listed in the NYC Copartnership and Corporation Directories between 1901 and 1925. They manufactured a rheumatism remedy and I’ve seen advertisements for their products as early as 1902.

The Galen Drug Company was first listed around 1914 at 91 Fulton Street and was still listed in 1925. Based on the definition of galenical (a medicine prepared by extracting one or more active constituents of a plant) they were most likely involved with plant based remedies.

In the mid 1920’s, the McKesson & Robbins name, along with its medicinal departments were sold to Frank D Costa. The 1933 NYC Directory listed Costa as the president, secretary and treasurer of McKesson & Robbins with an address of 79 Cliff.

Costa, who’s real name was Phillip Musica, had a criminal past and operated under several aliases. He seeded the company with family members and proceeded to loot the business up through the mid-1930’s. His scheme involved fake purchase orders, inflated inventory and skimming cash from company sales. The scheme fell apart in 1938 when the suspicions of the company treasurer led to an investigation that revealed that the McKesson & Robbins balance sheet was made up of 20% fictitious assets that included $10 million in fictitious inventories and $8 million in overstated receivables.

The company survived the scandal and by 1948, the NYC Telephone Directory had McKesson & Robbins listings for their Executive Offices (155 E 44th), a  Wholesale Drug Division (3674 3rd Ave), Liquor Division (111 8th Ave), Export Division (155 E 44th), Industrial Chemical Division (155 E 44th) and a Warehouse (90 Beekman).

In the 1960’s they merged with Foremost Dairies of San Farancisco becoming Foremost-McKesson Inc., the largest U.S. distributor of pharmaceutical drugs, alcoholic beverages and chemicals. In 1970 they moved to new corporate headquarters at One Post Street in San Francisco.

As far as I can tell the McKesson and Robbins families retained the chemical manufacturing piece of the business and continued to operate as the NY Quinine & Chemical Works. The factory location was still listed in 1952 at 101 N 11th Street in Brooklyn.

The bottle I found is a small mouth blown rectangular medicine with a tooled finish. It’s embossed “McKesson” on one edge side and “& Robbins” on the other. I found a labeled sample listed on the Internet of what appears to be the exact same bottle. It contained 100 gelatin coated pills containing extract of cannibis.