What you’re looking at in the above photograph is the lower half or base of a milk glass jar that’s embossed “Coward Corn Cure” on the bottom. Incorporated into the base is a shallow well that contained the “Corn Cure”which must have had a thick, greasy consistency.
The metal top of the jar is long gone obviously due to the salt water environment of the bay where it was found. That being said, a compete example including the top was recently offered for sale on the internet and is pictured below.
While you might think “Coward’s Corn Cure” was another turn of the century patent medicine, and possibly it was, the product was in fact manufactured by one of the largest and most reputable shoe makers of the late 19th and early 20th century, James S. Coward.
According to the “National Cyclopedia of American Biography,” published in 1910:
Mr. Coward is a thorough student of the foot. His trade mark is “The Coward Good Sense Shoe,” whose peculiarity consists in its conformity to the natural shape of the foot, thereby giving the foot proper room at all points and not crowding it into unnatural or deformed shapes. By adopting the most progressive methods he has become one of the foremost shoe merchants in the country.
Coward was born in New York City on December 19, 1847 and, according to various biographies, began his career at the age of thirteen working for a man named James Sinclair whose shoe factory was located in lower Manhattan at the corner of Pearl and Chatham Streets. Still in his teens he was later employed in the retail shoe store of B. McClosky on Greenwich Street. A feature on Coward in the October 21, 1903 edition of “The Shoe Retailer” picks up the story from there.
Coward’s employer was B. McClosky, who at the time had a small store at 217 Greenwich Street, where he worked until he was 19 years of age. At this period he started in business for himself, and his first location was on Greenwich Street, just above his present store. His former employer had later located at 270 Greenwich Street, where he finally sold out to other partners, who soon failed. It was then that Mr. Coward took over that store…
According to a feature on the Coward business found in the December 24, 1902 edition of an advertising publication called “Printer’s Ink,” it was in 1866 that Coward established that first shoe store at 370 Greenwich Street in a building called “Old Marble Hall.” Wilson’s Business Directory of New York City first listed the business at that location in their 1867-68 directory and it remained there until the mid-1870’s at which time Coward moved further south and into McClosky’s old store at 270 Greenwich Street.
The 1903 “Shoe Retailer” story went on to say:
Custom shoemaking was a profitable business in the early days, and this was Mr. Coward’s specialty. In the early days Mr. Coward lived over the store, and he would come down in the morning at 6 o’clock and open the store. He would work all day until closing time, 10 o’clock at night, then would pitch in and work until 2 o’clock almost every morning fitting up stock and lasts so that the shoemakers could start on them in the morning.
Early on Coward was content to simply service the local family trade so his approach to advertising was quite simplistic. He described it like this in the 1903 “Shoe Retailer” story.
I would go out late at night and early in the morning with a pail of paste and cover the entire lower districts with posters which read: “Get Your Footwear at Cowards.”
This approach began to change in the late 1880’s at which time Coward began publishing and distributing a mail order catalog as well as advertising in local newspapers. At this point, according to the 1902 “Printers Ink” feature:
Mr. Coward determined to divide the business into two departments. One was to cater to personal customers and the other was to be purely a mail order trade. To achieve this he chose the local newspapers to attract customers to the store. For the latter he selected magazines, religious and other publications.
For mail order purposes he claims the Coward list cannot be surpassed. It includes the “Ladies Home Journal,” ‘Munseys,” “Youth’s Companion,” “McClure’s,” the (Phil) “Saturday Evening Post,” “Success,” the “Christian Advocate,” “Motherhood,” etc.
This December 30, 1902 advertisement published in the “Brooklyn Daily Eagle,” included the phrases “Sold Nowhere Else,” and “A Short Walk from the Brooklyn Bridge,” so it was certainly aimed at the local store customer.
While this advertisement found in the October 17, 1901 edition of the more widely circulated religious publication “Christian Advocate,” focused on the mail order patron.
The 1902 “Printers Ink” feature went on to say:
The sixteen years of advertising done by Mr. Coward has yielded him a mail order list of 125,000 names.
This 16 year emphasis on advertising created a demand for expansion of their physical plant, which grew from a single store to four adjacent buildings all located on Greenwich Street (268 to 274 Greenwich St.). A description of their 1903 Greenwich Street facilities was included in the “Shoe Retailer” feature.
The business increased until it was necessary to occupy the entire building for sales, workshops, and the sorting of surplus stock. The business continued to grow until Mr. Coward now has four stores devoted to selling, while three upper floors of the four buildings, together with the basements, are required for various purposes, with over one hundred employees…
…In the repair department of this establishment, situated on the third floor, about 20 men are employed. The custom department on the fourth floor is another considerable feature. The shoemakers are in the rear, while the cutters work in the curious antique rooms lighted by the gable windows…
The second floors of the entire four buildings are exclusively devoted to the surplus stock of footwear, while in the basement is situated the receiving rooms and the rubber stock. The contrast between the store and the shoemaking departments on the upper floors is marked and interesting. It is the modern against the antique, the present compared with the past.
The mail order department of this concern is not a side issue by any means. It requires the services of several people alone to attend to this end of the business. Catalogues are issued twice a year, and several hundred thousand are printed. Orders come from every state in the Union, and a few from Europe…
Another feature on the Coward business, this one published in the July 3, 1909 edition of “The Shoe Retailer,” described a special department for making plaster casts. It also speaks volumes of Coward’s reputation.
A special department of this store is that for making plaster casts of feet which require special lasts. Four men are constantly employed to do-nothing but make these casts. A most interesting sight is a view of these casts, which show the facsimiles of the feet of some of the wold’s most prominent men. Among them the writer was shown the casts of the feet of a late President of the United States… the secrecy of identity maintained.
By this time the company’s merchandise had expanded well beyond simply a “Good Sense” shoe as evidenced by this list of specialties included in a November 26, 1906 “New York Times” advertisement.
It was also around this time, that they began including the “Corn Cure” in their advertisements as evidenced by this ad published in the May 12, 1905 edition of the New York “Evening World.”
The 1909 “Shoe Retailer” feature made it clear that throughout the first decade of the 20th Century, Coward’s Greenwich Street facilities were continuing to expand.
Mr. Coward has recently purchased two old buildings to the south of his present holdings and these later will be razed on August first next and upon the lots there will be erected a modern building containing every convenience, including elevators, to house the wonderful shoe business of James S. Coward.
Coward passed away in 1923 after which his son, John M. Coward, who had been working with his father for years, took over the business. Up to this point Coward shoes were sold from no other place in the world except their Greenwich Street location. The reasoning for this was verbalized by Coward’s son, John in the 1909 “Shoe Retailer” feature.
We have all the business here that we can attend to – I might almost say more – so what’s the use of going somewhere else?” “We believe in letting well enough alone.”
“The success of our house, located here in this out-of-the-way place, on a street that is in no sense a retail thoroughfare, simply bears out to the letter the truth of what Emerson says: ‘If a man can write a better book, preach a better sermon or make a better mouse trap than his neighbor, though he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.’ That’s our case exactly.”
This long time philosophy began to change in 1925 when John M. Coward passed away and his son, J. Mortimer Coward, James S. Coward’s grandson, took over. A little over a year later the company announced the opening of their “New Uptown Branch,” at 37 West 47th Street. This item in the March 19, 1927 edition of a Brooklyn, N. Y. publication called “The Tablet,” announced the opening of the new branch.
The announcement went on to read in part:
Now Coward Shoes will be as convenient to buy as they are comfortable to wear.
Thousands of old friends will find this new store, the first and only branch, easy to reach… A great store it is too, with 11,000 square feet of floor space – the counterpart of the great Greenwich Street store which grew from a workbench in a tiny shop to be the largest single shoe store in all the world.
Less than four months later the company opened a huge store in Boston, Massachusetts, their first location outside of New York City. An August 12, 1927 story in the Boston Globe announcing the opening included this fun fact.
There will be 110,000 pairs of shoes in the store Monday morning when the establishment opens for business, a record number for opening a shoe store.
Stock room boys will be busy all day taking the shoes from the stock shelves to the automatic lifts which will carry the shoes upstairs to fill the places of those sold. In order to make speed in the basement the stock room boys will be provided with roller skates. The floor is a hard cement. This is bound to be a popular job for young boys.
The “Boston Globe” story included this photograph of the sales room that included over 300 leather seats.
Another story, this one in the August 18, 1927 edition of the “Bayonne Evening News” laid out J. Mortimer Coward’s plans for the future.
With the opening of the store, Coward has set in motion plans for expansion of the business into what he hopes will become the world’s greatest retail shoe business.
Sadly, J. Mortimer Coward passed away unexpectedly less than a year later and never saw his expansion plans implemented. Two years later, the April 16, 1930 edition of the “Montclair Times” reported the business had been sold.
Sale of the Coward shoe stores to Lane Bryant, Inc., announced this week, marks the end of the control held by a Glen Ridge family for three generations. No announcement was made of the consideration. Two years ago $15,000,000 was refused for the Coward stores. Complete control of the Coward business will pass to Lane Bryant.
Policies of the Coward stores and the name will undergo no change because of the sale, it was said. The same administration will continue as when the business was in the hands of the Coward family.
There are but three Coward stores involved, though one of them is among the largest retail stores in the United States…Sale of the business was effected by the estate of the late J. Mortimer Coward who died March 4, 1928, in Havana at the age of twenty-eight.
In 1932 Lane Bryant opened two new stores in New York City under the Coward name. The first, third in Manhattan, was opened in March in the Empire State Building. All three Manhattan locations were pictured in this March 4, 1932 advertisement published in Brooklyn’s Times Union.
The second, located at the corner of Fulton and Hoyt Streets in Brooklyn, opened on December 15, 1932.
Fifty plus years later the Coward Shoe Company was still operating shoe stores in and around the New York area. A March 17, 1988 advertisement for “Revelations Shoes” published in the New York “Daily News” listed four Coward stores in Manhattan (though Greenwich St. and 47th St. were no longer included) as well as one each in Brooklyn, Hempstead, L. I., and Westchester County’s Mamaroneck.
As late as 1991 Coward’s was still advertising in the newspapers, as evidenced by this April 7th ad in Long Island’s “Newsday.”
The very bottom of the advertisement (shown below) indicates they were still operating their Empire State Building location in Manhattan as well as Hoyt Street in Brooklyn at that time
It appears the end of the road came the following year when advertisements for “Claro Shoes” included the phrase “Claro Shoes Formerly Coward Shoe.”
(Note that the word “formally” is used incorrectly in lieu of “formerly” in the third line of the ad but formerly is used correctly further down.)
Today, all remnants of Coward’s Greenwich Street complex are gone, replaced by modern buildings. That being said, it appears that the building and storefront of their 47th Street location remains to this day. The now, courtesy of Google Maps, and then are both pictured below
Their Empire State Building location certainly remains as well, somewhere in the building’s 34th Street frontage.
Finally, I’ll close the loop on “Coward Corn Cure:”
The inspiration for Coward Corn Cure came as a result of Coward’s mail order business. According to a “Printer’s Ink” feature published in 1916:
The mail order department was still young when customers began asking Coward to send them a box of stockings with a pair of shoes. This suggested the advisability of expanding the stock into “everything for the feet.”
It was obvious immediately that every additional item Coward could sell would add to the net profits from the mail orders, so he has extended his lines until now they include his own make of insoles, foot powder, shoe oil, leather dressings, corn cure, shoe forms, and many other specialties.
As far as I can tell, in 1905 and 1905 only, the company ran specific advertisements for their “Corn and Bunion Paste”
In addition, many general Coward advertisements that year included, at the very bottom, a reference to their “Corn Cure.”
The fact that these ads and references are exclusive to 1905 suggests, at least to me, that the product originated around that time. I’ve seen it referenced in drug price lists (1907 and 1910) and correspondence in a drug publication (1921) so it was certainly on the market from 1905 up through at least the early 1920’s. When exactly it was discontinued is unclear.