Hostetter’s Bitters was an extremely popular patent medicine sold in this country from 1853 up until the early 1960’s. The bitters was named after a third generation Pennsylvanian named Jacob Hostetter who was born on April 18, 1791. A graduate of the Jefferson Medical College, he was known locally in Lancaster, Pennsylvania as an able practitioner.
This December 1892 advertisement published in McBride’s Magazine boldly described the bitters as:
…not only a national but a universal remedy, the round world over.
Their purported benefits were many as evidenced by this July 6, 1855 advertisement in the Monongahela Valley (Pa.) Republican.
Acknowledged to be the best and most pleasant tonic medicine of the age; the best blood purifier in the medical market; is a sure cure for dyspepsia; will remove all flatulency or heaviness from the stomach; keeps you free from costiveness; assists digestion; gives a good appetite, and imparts a healthy tone to the whole system. It is a certain preventative of fever and ague; it disperses bile, and imparts a bracing impetus to the whole system, which alone puts these Bitters at the head and front of all prescriptions of the kind in the market.
According to another advertisement published at around the same time, depending on your ailment, one, two or three bottles was all you needed to do the trick.
Three bottles of Hostetter’s Celebrated Stomach Bitters will cure the Dyspepsia. One bottle will create an appetite, force off the impure bile, purify the blood and invigorate the system. Two bottles will cure the worst form of liver complaint. One bottle will dissipate that weakness at the pit of the stomach, give color to the countenance, impart tone and strength to the system, and lend cheerfulness to the mind. Every family should have Hostetter’s Celebrated Stomach Bitters. No article is so peculiarly adapted to the depressing effects of summer weather.
An April 1, 1865 ad in the Druggist Circular & Chemical Gazette succinctly summed it up in one line.
Steadies the Nerves and Tends to Prolong Life.
So what formula was able to accomplish such wonderful results? Well, if you believe the 1865 Druggist Circular and Chemical Gazette advertisement:
Hostetter’s Celebrated Stomach Bitters is of botanic derivation. Its remedial elements comprise some of the most effacious vegetable juices known to medical botany, harmoniously combined by careful scientific processes, with a purified spiritous basis, pronounced by competent analysis free from all hurtful contamination.
What they fail to mention is that the spiritous base mentioned above resulted in a preparation that contained a significant percentage of alcohol. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, dated May 29, 1920, the Bitters alcoholic content varied over its life span. In 1906 the state chemists of North Dakota reported finding 43%; in 1907, when the Food and Drug Act went into effect the label declared the presence of 39% and by 1914 it was 25%. The 1920 Journal report included the following chart which was self explanatory.
Applying the same logic to the earlier 43% alcoholic content would almost double those numbers, so its no surprise that the Bitters was not only available at the local drug store, but according to their early advertising:
It can be had at any of our first class hotels and restaurants.
Who originally developed the formula for the Bitters is open to debate. Jacob Hostetter, a druggist named Charles Green or possibly a team effort between the two are all possibilities. What we do know is that in 1851, according to an item published in the December 13 edition of the (Lancaster Pa.) Express, Green had just arrived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and had set up an office on South Prince Street. Within several months of his arrival, Green was advertising a product called “Dr. Charles Green’s Celebrated Aromatic Homeopathic Bitters.”
Sometime in 1852 Green and Hostetter established a company called Dr. Green & Co. whose directors included Green and Jacob’s son David. The company produced what they called a “Temperance Stomach Bitters,” as evidenced by this advertisement for Dr. Green & Co. that appeared in several January, 1853 editions of Lancaster’s Saturday Express.
The business, after apparently establishing a local following, ultimately dissolved on March 22, 1853. The dissolution notice was published in the March 23, 1853 edition of the Lancaster Examiner.
Green continued to manufacture and sell bitters in Lancaster, while at around the same time the Hostetter’s partnered with George Smith and a local banker named Charles Bougher to manufacture bitters under the firm name of Hostetter, Smith & Co. By the end of the year, their company had established a factory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This December 22, 1853 advertisement in the Pittsburgh Daily Post listed their address as 276 Penn Street. It’s also the earliest advertisement I can find that associated the Hostetter name with the Bitters.
Two years later, on November 29, 1855, with Bougher no longer involved in the business, Jacob bought out his son David and the name of the business was changed to Hostetter & Smith. The announcement was published in the December 27, 1855 edition of the Pittsburgh Daily Post.
David Hostetter continued to be associated with the company as a confidential agent and a little over two years later, on February 17, 1858, with Jacob’s mental condition deteriorating, he sold his entire interest in the company to David. Jacob would pass away the following year.
Throughout the 1850’s the business had apparently grown leaps and bounds based primarily, if not exclusively, on this one product. Five years after their start in Pittsburgh, Hostetter’s Bitters was appearing in newspaper advertisements in almost every state east of the Mississippi River and had made its way to California as evidenced by its inclusion in a February 24, 1857 advertisement for a Sacramento, California drug store named Alban, Thomas & Co.
In New York City, a July 11, 1859 advertisement in the New York Times mentioned that in addition to their principal depot at 13-15 Park Row, the bitters was available in Manhattan from over 30 wholesale druggists.
Certainly driven by this increasing demand the company moved to a new location in 1858. The move was announced in an item published in the March 2 edition of the Pittsburgh Gazette.
This new facility was described several years later in the company’s 1867 Illustrated Almanac. The almanac quoted an April 17, 1866 Chicago Post story that, while a little lengthy, provides a good feel for the size of the operation, which at the time was employing approximately 40 hands.
Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters are prepared in a vast laboratory by one of the most efficient and experienced chemists in the United States. The establishment is in Pittsburgh, and covers all the space occupied by the immense stores and warehouses at Nos. 58, 59 and 60 on Water and First Streets, in that wide awake and progressive city. The buildings comprise four stories of immense height, and the outside measurement in front is 75 by 190 feet.
On going over the building, which is almost of cathedral dimensions, we found that the uppermost story was the laboratory, in which the ingredients were carefully measured and concocted for the distillation of the bitters. The herbs were of the rarest and some were quite new to us.
When the herbs and other compounds are ready for use, they are deposited in the twenty-one enormous tanks, which measure five feet in depth by forty-eight feet in circumference. The liquor with which the Bitters are mixed is brought up from the basement by means of an elevator, and, when it has undergone the proper chemical process, it is conducted by pipes to the third story, which is the same size as the other; indeed they are all alike in this respect. These pipes are connected with ten immense receivers, which are nine feet deep and eighteen feet broad, where the liquor which is brought from the mixing room above is clarified. There is another chemical process, and it remains a secret with the manufacturers. As soon as it is prepared, however, it is conveyed by other pipes to the bottling room…
A July 1887 advertisement in Harpers Magazine offered a glimpse of their facility’s interior. A rendering captioned: This cut represents one floor of our vast laboratory,” was likely a view of their 10 – nine foot deep receiver tanks.
Much of their expansion was driven by a healthy dose of advertising, which, in addition to ads in newspapers across the nation, also included their annual publication of “Hostetter’s United States Almanac.”
The 1867 edition was typical and contained feature stories/glorified advertisements with titles like: “Prevention of Disease by the Increase of Vital Power.” Interspersed with these stories was general information like sun and moon rise, humorous anecdotes and wise old sayings:”Small faults indulged are little thieves that let in greater.”
David Hostetter, along with George W. Smith, managed the business as a partnership from 1858 up until Smith’s death on October 30, 1884. At that time the partnership was dissolved and David Hostetter continued to manage it under a new name; Hostetter & Co. The dissolution notice, dated December 1, 1884, was published in the December 4 edition of the Pittsburgh Post.
David Hostetter passed away four years later on November 5, 1888. Shortly afterward, in April 1889, his widow, Rossetta Hostetter along with his surviving children incorporated the business. The notice of incorporation was published in several March and April editions of the Pittsburgh Dispatch.
Hostetter’s sons, D. Herbert and Theodore R. Hostetter were named president and vice president respectively, and, according to a brief feature on the company published in the June 23, 1934 edition of the Pittsburg Press, the company would remain under the control of the Hostetter family for a fourth generation as well.
Theodore R. Hostetter died in 1902 and D. Herbert Hostetter Sr., in 1924. Upon the death of the latter, Frederick G. Hostetter, and D. Herbert Hostetter Jr., sons of the deceased, were elected president and vice president respectively. Frederick G. Hostetter died in 1931, and his brother, D. Herbert Hostetter, Jr., succeeded him as president.
The 1934 feature went on to say that the company’s business peaked sometime in the early 1870’s but up through 1920 was still doing quite well.
From the early sixties the business developed from several hundred thousand dollars until 1872, it had reached the million dollar mark. During the eighties and the nineties, the gross business fluctuated around the half-million mark, and so continued for the succeeding thirty years until 1919 and 1920, when the gross business for each of these years exceeded the million mark.
In 1903 the business began listing a second company address, 60 First Avenue, in the Pittsburgh directories.
The company remained active during the Prohibition years and Hostetter’s advertisements, though now less numerous, continued to appear in the newspapers.
This 1920’s advertisement, though toned down, delivered a similar message as those from the mid 1800’s.
HOSTETTER’S Celebrated Stomach Bitters tone up the digestive organs, stimulate the appetite and promote a feeling of physical fitness.
Whether it was lack of management after the death of D. Herbert Hostetter, a reduction in the alcohol content to 25%, or likely a combination of both, the prohibition years were not kind to the business. By the early 1930’s they had dropped the Water Street address from the Pittsburgh directories, apparently consolidating at the newer location. Then, in 1936, with the Hostetter family apparently no longer involved, the company initiated a stock offering. The reasoning behind the 78,200 share offering was explained in a July 28, 1936 story in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
The offering is being made at $2.50 per share by Charles E. Doyle & Co., New York, principal underwriter, which firm was instrumental in greatly strengthening the management of Hostetter Corporation.
Advertising expenditures of the predecessor Hostetter companies totaled over $4,425,000 in the period from 1889 to 1920, and the present Hostetter Corporation announces that of the net proceeds from the sale of this issue, which will total $150,562, $90,000 will be devoted to an advertising program. The balance will be devoted to raw materials, plant equipment, machinery improvements, organization expenses, working capital, etc.
The promised advertising campaign materialized in 1937 with newspaper advertisements focused primarily on Pennsylvania as well as a number of midwest states.
Apparently the stock offering and advertising campaign didn’t do the trick and by 1939 the extent of their advertising had been reduced to three lines in the classified sections.
Their advertisements disappear completely in the early 1940’s but the company remained active, though just barely. Then, in 1954, this March 21 item in the Pittsburgh Press announced an attempted revival along with a change in name to Hostetter’s Tonic.
A famous old product name in Pittsburgh has changed hands, and is scheduled to again become big business.
It is Hostetter Stomachic Bitters, first made here more than 100 years ago, and now headed for distribution as Hostetter Tonic.
Charles G. Brown and Associates of Pittsburgh have purchased Hostetter Corp. In announcing acquisition of the almost dormant company, Mr. Brown said labeling and packaging of the medicine would be modernized, but the ingredients would remain the same as they were for more than a century…
Fifty million bottles of the packaged medicine have been sold since Dr. Jacob Hostetter first wrote the prescription in 1853. Produced in only small quantities in the past 15 years however, output is being stepped up rapidly.
This April 5, 1960 advertisement in the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News for Hostetter’s Tonic is one of the last ones I could find.
The business came an end, at least in Pittsburgh, sometime prior to 1967. That was the year that the Hostetter Building on First Avenue was demolished. A humorous story in the April 26, 1967 edition of the Pittsburgh Press described the publicity stunt associated with the official end of the Hostetter era.
When it comes to building demolition, Pirate Pitcher Vernon Law had better stick to baseball.
He threw a dozen baseballs, then had to resort to rocks today before he was able to “strike out” a large plate glass window in the Hostetter Building at First Avenue and Stanwix St., downtown.
It was all part of a publicity gimmick marking the start of demolition of the structure to make way for Equitable Life Assurance Society’s new Gateway Center 6 office building.
“I guess I’ve got too much control for this sort of thing.” drawled the big right hander.
It took him 12 baseballs to make only five holes in a second floor window. He kept firing them through the same holes.
At the suggestion of several onlookers, he scooped up half a dozen rocks from the street and was able-finally- to shatter the glass.
Law finally left the “mound” to let a “relief” demolition crew take over the chores.
They got better results with their 1,000-pound, crane mounted headache ball, painted white with black seams to resemble the horsehide sphere Law is used to hurling.
Equitable’s new building, a 23-story, 400,000 square foot structure will rise on the site
A photograph of the building under demolition appeared in the May 20, 1967 edition of the Pittsburgh Press. Today, courtesy of Google Earth, the 23 story tower (black on the right) is visible in its place.
The bottle I found is a typical Hostetter’s bottle; brown with a square cross section. Advertisements as far back as 1854 describe the same bottle design: full quart with Dr. J. Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters blown in the glass.
At one time the bottle also included a paper label that included the company trademark, St. George and the Dragon. This labeled example recently appeared for sale on the Internet.
According to this October 1890 advertisement in the Overland Monthly, the trademark dates back to the start of the business as well.
For the last 35 years it has heralded the curative powers of the great tonic HOSTETTER’S STOMACH BITTERS.