The founder and initial proprietor of the company was James Cook Ayer.
Always located in Lowell, Massachusetts, his business began in a little apothecary shop and by the time of his death in 1878, had culminated in an immense patent medicine manufacturing establishment.
His success and notoriety were eloquently summarized in a newspaper article, written near the time of his death, in the March 24, 1878 edition of the Boston Globe.
The name of Dr. James C. Ayer and his various compounds for nature’s ills are known throughout the whole length and breadth of the land. It may be safely said that there is not a second during the whole twenty-four hours but what, in some part of the inhabitable globe, the sun is shining upon his printed name…
Dr. Ayer was very justly recognized as one of the leading business and commercial men in Lowell and it is not any exaggeration to say that no single individual has ever done more to contribute to the city’s prosperity and renown.
The article went on to describe the general premise on which he based the business.
Thirty years ago, when Lowell was in its commercial infancy, Dr. Ayer commenced his business career as a drug clerk, and it was while serving in this capacity at a moderate salary that he struck upon the idea of curing the sick without the aid of physicians. At the time the settlement of the Western country had just commenced, and the Doctor argued to himself that in those wild sections there would be much sickness and very few physicians to deal with it, and that cheap and effective medicines for the common complaints of humanity would at once spring to popularity.
Ayer’s business career began in 1841 when he bought the apothecary shop of Jacob Robbins where he had been working as a clerk since 1838. The start of the business was described in the “History of Lowell and its People – Vol II,” by Frederick W. Coburn, published in 1920.
In April, 1841, he bought the Robbins drug store, borrowing from his uncle, James Cook, the purchase price – $2,486.61, thus beginning business life at the age of twenty-three with borrowed capital. But he had an asset even beyond his learning and youth. The drug store, which stood on Central Street, corner of Hurd Street, had been practically in the young man’s charge for some time, Mr. Robbins going to Europe. While in charge the young man experimented considerably, and had compounded the remedy for pulmonary complaints, which was afterward placed upon the market as Cherry Pectoral. He had induced physicians to try it in their practice, and the favorable reports received convinced him that he had found a valuable remedy. This fact nerved him to make the purchase and burden himself with a debt which he agreed to pay off in five years. It was paid in three.
His first remedy, Cherry Pectoral, was sold as a cure for coughs, colds, hoarseness, bronchitis, whooping cough, croup, asthma and consumption. Although it was being compounded by Ayer in his shop in the early 1840’s, newspaper advertisements for it did not begin to appear until 1845. These early advertisements from the late 1840’s/early 1850’s, like most Ayer advertisements over the years, were followed by written testimonials.
As the demand for his Cherry Pectoral continued to increase, so did the need for more space to manufacture it. Consequently in 1852, he built his first factory. According to Colburn’s “History of Lowell:”
For a time he continued at the old Robbins shop but the demand for his Cherry Pectoral increased so fast that he needed more room to install necessary machinery. He rented quarters in the Hamilton building, corner of Central and Jackson Streets. There he remained until 1852 when, driven out by the insistent demands of his trade, he moved to the large brick building he had caused to be erected on Jackson Street, adjoining the Fiske block.
Lowell city directories of the time confirmed this progression. He was listed at the original Robbins shop at Central and Hurd up through 1844 and subsequently the Hamilton building, at 84 Central, from 1845 to 1851. By 1853 the directories listed James C. Ayer & Co., Central, corner of Jackson where he remained listed through 1858.
Shortly after establishing the new Jackson Street facility, Ayer’s introduced sugar coated pills called “Ayer’s Cathartic Pills” or sometimes just “Ayer’s Pills” as a second Ayer product.
Introductory newspaper advertisements, including one from the December 10, 1853 edition of the “New England Farmer,” described them as:
A new and singularly successful remedy for the cure of all Bilous diseases – Costiveness, Indigestion, Jaundice, Dropsy, Rheumatism, Fevers, Gout, Humors, Nervousness, Irritability, Inflammations, Headache, Pains in the Breast, Side, Back, and Limbs, Female Complaints, et., etc. Indeed very few are the diseases in which a Purgative Medicine is not more or less required, and much sickness and suffering might be prevented, if a harmless but effectual Cathartic were more freely used… Hence a reliable family physic is of the first importance to the public health, and this Pill has been perfected with consummate skill to meet that demand…
The addition of Carthatic Pills contributed to the growth of the business such that Ayer needed help, so, sometime in 1855, Ayer’s brother Frederick joined the business and by 1856 they had formed an official copartnership. A notice announcing the copartnership was printed in the December 4, 1856 edition of the “Burlington (Vermont) Weekly Sentinel.”
Around the same time two new “Ayer” preparations appeared on the market in rapid succession. Colburn’s “History of Lowell” identified them as:
….In 1855 Extract of Sarsaparilla was placed on the market, ague cure following in 1857.
Newspaper advertisements for both began appearing in and around 1858.
Their Sarsaparilla was described in advertisements as:
a combination of vegetable alteratives – Stillingia, Mandrake, Yellow Dock – with the Iodides of Potassium and Iron, and is the most effacious medicine yet known for the diseases it is intended to cure.
Its ingredients are so skillfully combined that the full alterative effect of each is assured, and while it is so mild as to be harmless even to children, it is still so effectual as to purge out from the system those impurities and corruptions which develop into loathsome disease.
Those diseases intended for its cure were many.
“Ayer’s Ague Cure,” was warranted as a cure for:
Fever and Ague. Intermittent Fever, Chill Fever, Remittent Fever, Periodical or Billious Fever, etc., and indeed all the affections which arise from malarious, marsh or miasmatic poisons.
According to Colburn’s “History of Lowell,” the manufacture of these remedies taxed the Jackson Street building beyond its capacity and in 1857 they erected a large building on Market Street. Later, in 1872, they purchased a school building on Market street and included it as part of their facility. Lowell directories listed the addresses of these locations as 103-105 Market Street and 98 Middle Street respectively. During this period, they began manufacturing Ayer’s Hair Vigor (1869) and acquired Hall’s Hair Renewer by purchase (1870).
On July 3, 1877, J. C. Ayer passed away at the age of 60 and subsequently, on October 16, 1877, the business incorporated with Frederick Ayer named as the company’s first treasurer and general manager. Under his leadership the business continued to prosper through the 1880’s. A retrospective look back at the year 1885, printed in the 1886 New Year’s Day edition of the Boston Globe provided this snapshot of a growing company that had become a world-wide operation.
At the J. C. Ayer Company about three hundred persons had employment in the office, laboratory, printing room and bindery. The managers claim that forty thousand persons do business with them and their sales have been greater this year than ever. To advertise their business the company prints almanacs in ten different languages and the last edition issued was over 14,000,000. Pamphlets are also issued in twenty different languages, and 40,000,000 circulars are also printed.
According to the biography of Frederick Ayer, included in the “Biographical History of Massachusetts,” he held the office of Treasurer until 1893 when the pressure of other interests forced him to resign. (According to his New York Times obituary, he was one of the organizers and for several years Treasurer of the Lake Superior Ship Canal and Railway and Iron Company and at the time of his death he was a Director of the Columbian National Life Insurance Company, the American Woolen Company, the International Trust Company, the J. C. Ayer Company, the Tremont and Suffolk Mills, the Boston Elevated Railroad Company and the Lowell and Andover Railroad Company.) After 1893 the Lowell directories, listed him as president of the Ayer business but he had obviously left the day to day management of the business to others.
In 1894, it appears that the company either moved or expanded again, changing their main address listing in the Lowell directories from 98 Middle Street to 176 Middle Street. By this time they apparently owned a significant amount of property in the block between Middle Street and Market Street.
At the turn of the century, the company was still making additions and improvements to the their facility and operations. On April 23,1900 the company hosted a full day celebration to showcase one such series of improvements. An article describing the day’s festivities was printed in the April 24, 1900 edition of the “Boston Globe.” The article’s author participated in a tour of the Ayer facilities and his description of that tour, quoted below, provides a first hand perspective of the business at the time. So now sit back and enjoy the tour!
From the main office the sightseers were conducted downstairs to the printing office, which is prepared, as the foreman said to the reporter, “to turn out anything from a visiting card to a Bible.”
The next stopping place on the march was the new engine room on the Market Street side of the building, one of the handsomest engine rooms in the state. It was brilliantly lighted by more than 60 incandescent lamps. The engines of 80 horsepower each were the center of attraction.
Upstairs again following their guides, the guests found themselves in the first office of the fine new building on Market Street where Dr. Stowell presides over the medical department. This office as well as the one connected with it is in charge of Mr. Robinson.
Above these offices are two similar rooms, the sanctums of Mr. Kirkland, under whose supervision the renovating process has been brought to completion, and of Mr. Frank G. Rose, head of the publication department. Another flight took the visitors to the electrotyping department, where all the plates used in the advertising are cast.
Then followed a sight of the storeroom, drug mill, built exclusively for the company, the old tank room now superseded by the new, through passage and apartment, amid the clink of bottle and whir of machinery to the mixing room, the head center of the house of Ayer. The great room contains 7,000 square feet.
In one corner is the experimental laboratory – sacred to chemist Flynn, who said that last year they found it necessary to add over 13,000 gallons to the capacity, which now aggregates over 28,000 gallons.
A visit to the pill room on the same floor gave the visitors a glimpse at a business-like machine which mixed away at the compounds for dear life, turning the product over to a neighbor which rolled and cut the soft mass, delivering it in the form of handfuls of pills, black as the traditional hat, and pouring by thousands into the receptacle at the base. Thence the pills are placed in huge copper cylinders, where they roll into coats of sugary whiteness, to be withdrawn, hardened in the drying kilns, recoated smoothly and sent along to be packed.
The filtering room, where the sarsaparilla and pectoral compounds from upstairs are filtered and cleansed from sediment was seen. In the bottling room below, the Ayer products, sarsaparilla, cherry pectoral, ague cure, etc., are made ready for the market – bottled and labeled with careful swiftness. An inspection of the hair vigor department was next in order.
A further descent revealed the advertising exhibit, showing Ayer advertising in 21 different languages as one of the novelties. Through the stock room, piled high with boxes containing the finished product, the visitors were led, downstairs to the shipping room, where the methods of sending out goods for foreign and local markets were set forth. Each trade has its own style of packing, and each preparation as well.
In the basement are stored in one part rows upon rows of barrels filled with drugs, and in another hundreds of cases of glassware in which the preparations are packed. Then the guests were lifted again to the office level. They were quite ready for a rest. The house of Ayer contains a floor space of 107,000 square feet, and they had traveled a considerable part of it.
After Frederick’s death in 1918, J. C. Ayer’s son, also named Frederick, was listed in the directories as president until 1924 when he also passed away. At that point, Charles F. Ayer (a son of the elder Frederic (as best I can tell) was named president.
The company remained listed at 176 Middle Street in the 1939 Lowell Directory. Also listed in 1939, at the same address, was the Mass Pharmaceutical Corp. In 1943 (the next directory I have access to) The Mass Pharmaceutical Corp. was still listed at the same address but the Ayer Company had vanished from the directory. In 1944, neither company name was listed.
Advertising was one of, if not THE, key to the success of the company over the years. J. Walter Thompson, a famous advertising executive, whose company worked with the Ayer company for over 20 years beginning around 1870, was interviewed around the time of Frederick’s death in 1918. In the interview, presented in the March 21, 1918 edition of “Printers Ink, he mentioned both their almanac, which began publishing in 1852, and newspaper/magazine advertisements as focus points of their advertising.
J. C. Ayer & Co., were one of my first clients and continued with me for more than twenty years. I probably did not meet Frederick Ayer more than two or three times during this entire period, although he was the directing force of the business. The man I dealt with was Mr. Whyte – I think that was the way his name was spelled – who had charge of the advertising and made the contacts with agents and publishers.
Ayer’s Almanac was, I believe, the first and most widely distributed advertising medium employed by the firm. I have seen a statement somewhere, that the sum of $300,000 a year was annually spent on this publication. It was issued in some forty different languages and dialects, the several editions aggregating several million copies.
The Ayer remedies were extensively advertised in the newspapers as well as in the magazines. Mr. Whyte himself, used to go about the country, making contracts with the newspaper publishers. The rates he paid were down to bedrock and were ofter ridiculously low. The contracts were prepared a sufficiently long time in advance to have them include every possible provision that would insure their exact fulfillment. I do not remember the amount spent bt the Ayers in advertising in the magazines and newspapers, but it was not less than $200,000 and may have run as high as $500,000.
Their newspaper advertisements were supported by a large number of written testimonials that attested to the success of their products as well as endorsements from well-known individuals. This early advertisement, printed in the November 21, 1857 edition of the “New England Farmer” included endorsements from the Governor of Massachusetts, the Catholic Bishop of Boston and a professor of the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City among others.
Another, printed in the April 7, 1860 edition of the “New England Farmer” included endorsements from over 25 named mayors of both U. S. and foreign cities.
The “Printers Ink” interview went on to say that Ayer was one of the first companies that provided their goods to retailers on consignment.
It was Frederick Ayer who inaugurated what was at the time a brand new system of distribution. He was not satisfied with the old methods – they were shown to be inadequate. He believed that there were hundreds of stores in the smaller towns not covered by his salesman that ought to sell the Ayer products. After studying the situation thoroughly he hit upon a plan that enormously increased the business. A large number of handsomely painted and decorated wagons, drawn by one and two pairs of fine looking horses and carrying large stocks of Ayer remedies were sent out along the highways into nearly every state. The salesman who accompanied the wagons called on every retailer, whether grocer, druggist or general store keeper, in every town, and, whenever possible, left with him an assortment of goods. The coming of these wagons, which because of their snappy smart appearance created great interest wherever they went, was an event, and the dealers in front of whose stores the teams stopped felt highly honored. The remedies were left on consignment. Three months or perhaps four months later, when the distributing wagons made their next trip, the retailers paid for the goods sold since the last visit. In this way Ayers built up a great distribution. You could hardly find a town anywhere in which the firm’s products were not sold. This sales plan was employed for many years , but was finally abandoned when transportation facilities became abundant.
Today, the building at 176 Middle Street almost certainly dates back to the time of the business. A sign denoting the “J. C. Ayer Co.” is still prominently visible on the side of the building that fronts Middle Street. Now, converted to condominiums the building is now called the “Ayer Lofts Condominiums.”
The bottle I found is a mouth blown sarsaparilla bottle that matches the bottles shown in advertisements from the late 1800’s.