The name “Burnett” embossed on the subject bottles is short for Joseph Burnett, a Boston druggist, who established an apothecary and later manufacturing business in Boston during the mid 1800’s. He’s generally credited with manufacturing and marketing the first commercially available flavoring extracts in the United States.
His chief product, Burnett’s Vanilla Extract, was still being offered for sale under his name in the late 1970’s.
A story in the November 1, 1881 edition of The Fitchburg (Mass.) Sentinel relayed this commonly held version of the product’s origin.
The extensive business of this house, which has extended to nearly every civilized country in the world, had its origin in what might be called an incident, or an accident some thirty years ago. At that time Mr. Joseph Burnett, the founder of the house was doing a large apothecary business on Tremont Street, opposite the Boston Museum.
A lady who had lived in France and had become accustomed to French methods of cookery, came into Mr. Burnett’s store one day and asked him if he could not make a decent Flavoring Extract for her, as she found those in common use abominable. She wanted an extract of vanilla. This was made which pleased the lady very much, and from this simple beginning has grown a business…
Likely some combination of both fact and legend, the above serves as a good background for Burnett’s story, a story that starts not with him, but another New England druggist named Theodore Metcalf, who gave Burnett his start in business.
Born in Dedham, Massachusetts on January 21, 1812, Metcalf began his career in the Hartford Connecticut apothecary of E. W. Bull where he initially served as an apprentice and later as Bull’s partner. That partnership was dissolved in January, 1836 with the dissolution notice appearing in the January 23, 1836 edition of the “Hartford Courant.”
According to Metcalf’s obituary, published in the “American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record,” he subsequently moved to Boston and in the Spring of 1837 established an apothecary business at 33 Tremont Row (later called Tremont Street). Not long after he opened the doors Metcalf hired Burnett as a clerk, jump-starting what would ultimately be a long and successful career. A feature on Burnett, published in the October, 1894 edition of a publication called “The Spatula” provided some early details.
Mr. Burnett who was born in Southboro, Mass., in 1819, received as good an education as the schools of those days afforded, and began his career as a pharmacist in 1837 as a clerk in the store of Mr. Metcalf. It was not long before the latter saw the advisability of taking him into partnership which continued until Mr. Burnett became entire owner of the establishment
A notice announcing the transfer of ownership from Metcalf to Burnett, dated January 1, 1845, was published in several January editions of the “Boston Medical and Surgical Journal.”
N0. 33 TREMONT ROW, JANUARY 1, 1845
The subscriber has disposed of his stock and place of business to Mr. Joseph Burnett, his principal assistant for the past six years.
To his regular customers no commendation of his successor is necessary, as his competency and accurateness are well known to them, and he respectfully solicits a continuance of their favors to the establishment.
To the medical profession he takes pleasure in saying that the duty of conducting the business could not fall into hands more capable.
JOSEPH BURNETT respectfully informs the medical profession, that he will endeavor, by close attention to business, to sustain the reputation of the old establishment, and to deserve their confidence and favor.
Over the course of the next ten years the business was listed in the Boston directories as simply “Joseph Burnett.” As far as I can tell Burnett operated the business as a sole proprietorship until 1853, at which time he admitted two partners, William W. Goodwin, and Peter J.Hassard. The partnership announcement, dated January 1, 1853, appeared in several January and February editions of Boston’s “Daily Evening Transcript.”
During this ten year period the business primarily served as an importer/wholesaler/retailer for a wide variety of items as evidenced by their advertisement that appeared within Boston’s 1851 Commercial Directory.
Several of the company’s late 1840’s to early 1850’s newspaper advertisements provide a sampling of the products they carried at the time.
The company also marketed a variety of items directly to the medical profession. According to the following 1853 advertisement that appeared in the “Boston Medical and Surgical Journal” this included:
genuine drugs, pure chemicals, select powders, superior extracts (both solid and fluid), and other desirable pharmaceutical preparations
In fact, a story written years later in the October 13, 1946 edition of the “Boston Globe” credits Burnett with supplying the “pure sulphuric ether” used by W. T. G. Morton when he performed the first successful operation under anesthesia in 1846.
If that wasn’t enough, you could stop by his apothecary and have a flavored soda if you were so inclined.
Finally, their 1851 directory advertisement also mentioned “extracts for flavoring pies, jellies, etc.,” so they were certainly manufacturing them, though likely on a small scale, during the early 1850’s (some accounts say as early as 1847). That would all change on January 1, 1855 when, in an effort to focus on the manufacturing side of the business, Burnett sold the apothecary back to Theodore Metcalf. A notice announcing the sale appeared in the January 10, 1855 edition of the “Boston Evening Transcript.”
Directly adjacent to the dissolution notice was an advertisement for Metcalf’s reacquired apothecary.
Soon after, Burnett partnered with William Otis Edmunds and established the firm of Joseph Burnett & Co. Within a year the company was manufacturing ten different varieties of flavoring extracts as evidenced by this December 20, 1855 advertisement in the “Boston Evening Transcript.”
FLAVORING EXTRACTS. Messrs. Joseph Burnett & Co., Tremont Street, manufacture very superior Flavoring Extracts of perfect purity, and great strength. The articles are guaranteed to be free from the poisonous oils and acids which enter so largely into the composition of many of the fruit flavors now so freely offered in the market. The varieties are Lemon, Orange, Nectarine, Peach, Celery, Vanilla, Bitter Almond, Rose, Nutmeg and Cinnamon. For family use in blanc mange, custards, pies, etc., or for confectioners and hotel keepers to use in ice creams, jellies, etc. They are not only true to their names but are prepared from fruits of the best quality, and are so highly concentrated that only a small quantity is required. They have all the freshness and delicate flavor of the choice fruits from which they are prepared.
A list published in a July, 2, 1859 “Boston Evening Transcript” advertisement, indicated that by then the menu had been upped to 12 by adding ginger and cloves.
More than just flavoring extracts, by the late 1850’s the company was also manufacturing several medicines and toiletries, all of which were advertised together as “Burnett’s Standard Preparations.”
In case you’re interested here’s an alphabetized list of uses that “Burnett’s Standard Preparations” were touted to address. The list appeared in the 1866 edition of their annual marketing publication called “Burnett’s Floral Handbook and Ladies Calendar.” .
Joseph Burnett & Co. was initially listed in 1856 and 1857 at 41 Tremont where they were literally next door to (or cohabitated with?) Metcalf’s apothecary. In fact, this early Burnett advertisement for “Kalliston,” that appeared in the April 14, 1856 edition of the “Boston Evening Transcript” named Metcalf as one of Burnett’s first retailers.
That being said, Burnett apparently outgrew his Tremont facilities rather quickly and by 1857 moved the company to 27 Central Street where, by 1881, a November 1st feature on the business in the “Fitchburg Sentinel” described a company whose production of vanilla extract alone consumed one fourth of the entire Mexican product. The feature went on to say:
Some fifty persons are now directly employed by the concern in the varied work of bottling, labeling, packing and boxing their various Flavoring Extracts and Toilet Preparations, all of which are of altogether superior nature.
By this time, Burnett’s sons Harry, and John M. were actively involved in the business and in fact as early as 1882 the Boston directories name them, not Joseph, as the company principals. This suggests that while it was likely that Joseph continued to oversee the business, by then it was his sons who were running its day to day operations.
Ultimately full authority passed to the brothers in 1894 when Joseph Burnett died in a tragic accident. The August 13, 1894 edition of the “Boston Evening Transcript” told the story.
Dr. Joseph Burnett of Southboro, well-known in Boston, was fatally injured at Marlboro yesterday afternoon. He was driving on Maple Street and when near the electric car station his horse became frightened by an electric car and Dr. Burnett was thrown out, striking upon his head. He was taken to his country home at Southboro in an unconscious condition and died at seven o’clock last evening.
That same year the business moved again, this time to 36 India Street, where, now incorporated, it was listed in the 1895 Boston directories with a new name; the Joseph Burnett Company. The directories named John M., president and Harry, treasurer, that first year.
It was also in the early 1890’s that the company began advertising a line of food coloring’s called “Burnett’s Color Pastes.”
For coloring Ice Creams, Frostings, Jellies, Custards and all kinds of confectionery.
This 1898 advertisement that appeared in the “Boston Cooking School Magazine” advertised their Extracts and Color Pastes side by side. The advertisement provided this menu of their colored pastes: Leaf Green, Fruit Red, Golden Yellow, Damask Rose, Carmel, Chestnut, Imperial Blue and Mandarin Orange.
By the turn of the century the business was emphasizing their extracts and color pastes at the expense of their medicines and toilet preparations, some of which were likely being scrutinized as a result of the food and drug laws being enacted around that time. One clue supporting this shift in focus is evident in the font size used in the company’s advertisement that appeared in Boston’s 1905 Commercial Directory. By this time the medicinal and toilet items appear in the advertisement as no more than afterthoughts.
Nine years later only their extracts are mentioned in the 1914 directory advertisement.
Although their line of extracts included many flavors, by the early 1920’s according to a feature on the Burnett business in the November 3, 1921 edition of an advertising trade magazine called “Printers Ink”
The company is chiefly known to advertisers as makers of Vanilla Extract. Vanilla has been the advertised leader for many years.
The “Printers Ink” feature went on to say:
The line includes, however, many other flavors as well as spices and color pastes. Burnett’s spices are a comparatively recent addition to the line and they are being featured in the advertising this fall.
As promised their fall advertising campaign included their new line of spices as evidenced by an advertisement that appeared in the December, 1921 edition of “The Ladies Home Journal.”
It was also in 1921 that the company moved again, this time to a new factory at 437 D Street in South Boston.
Later, in the mid 1930’s they added several products having to do with ice cream, “Burnetts Liquid Ice Cream” and “Burnett’s Ice Cream Mix.” The Ice Cream Mix was advertised in the “North Adams (Mass.) Transcript” on May 23, 1935.
Up through the mid-1940’s, the Burnett family continued to remain heavily involved in the management of the company. John T. Burnett succeeded his brother John M. Burnett as president in 1906, serving in that capacity until his death in 1929. He was succeeded as president by Henry P. Kidder, with a third generation of the Burnett family, George H. Burnett, serving as treasurer. This arrangement continued until 1946 when the company was sold to American Home products. The sale was reported in the May 2, 1946 edition of the Boston Globe.
Am. Home Products Acquires Burnett Co.
H. W. Roden, vice president of American Home Products Corporation, announced today acquisition of the Joseph Burnett Company of Boston, for 8,918 capital shares of American Home Products, parent of American Home Foods, Inc.
The newly acquired company was the outgrowth of a Boston drug store, founded by Joseph Burnett, who, in 1847, produced vanilla flavoring as an experiment.
Less than a year after the acquisition a fire caused significant damage to the company’s D Street factory. The fire was reported in the April 2, 1947 edition of the “Boston Globe.”
Seventy-five persons, many of them women were driven out of the building at 437 D St., South Boston, today when fire caused damage of more than $50,000 to the building and extract stores of the Joseph Burnett Company.
The fire started when a spark from an electric motor ignited alcohol fumes, fire officials said. It started on the fourth floor of the seven story brick building and spread along pipes down to the third floor.
It appears that the fire put an end to Burnett’s manufacturing operations in Boston. The following year, in 1948, the Joseph Burnett Co., was listed in the Boston directories as a division of American Foods with simply an office address at 43 Leon, Rm 310, in Roxbury. That same year their D Street factory was no longer listed.
On a side note, the structure apparently survived and today is called the Seaport Lofts. Here’s a recent photograph courtesy of Google Earth.
Where American Home Products moved Burnett’s manufacturing arm is not clear, but in the 1950’s they did put out several new products under the Burnett name. One advertised in the early 1950’s was Burnett’s Instant Puddings.
As far as I can tell, the Burnett brands were later acquired by the Doxsee Food Corporation. One last mention of the brand that I can find appeared in a July 29, 1987 “Boston Globe” feature entitled “Ask the Globe,” where one question/answer item made it clear that by then Burnett’s Vanilla Extract, and likely the entire Burnett brand, had been discontinued.
Q. My wife prefers to use Burnett’s Pure Vanilla Extract in her cooking but has been unable to find it in local stores. Can it be purchased anywhere? – C.C., Milton.
A. Ed Lindsay of the customer service department at Doxsee Food Corp. in Baltimore says his firm no longer produces Burnett’s, but instead makes an imitation vanilla extract.
The last newspaper advertisement for “Burnett’s Vanilla Extract” that I can find appeared in March, 1979, suggesting that the late 1970’s/early 1980’s is the product’s likely end date. The advertisement, for a grocery store called Warehouse Foods, listed it along with several other products under the heading “Baking Time.” The ad appeared in the March 19th edition of a Wisconsin newspaper called the “Oshkosh Northwestern.”
I’ve found two Burnett bottles. One is two ounces in size, the other four ounces. Each is mouth blown with a tooled finish, likely putting their manufacture date somewhere in the late 1800’s to early 1900’s.
In the 1870 Floral Handbook and Ladies Calendar the company advertised that their flavored extracts were available in five sizes, one of which is two ounces.
Coupled with the fact that the smaller bottle matches almost exactly the vanilla extract bottle exhibited in this 1902 advertisement found in a publication called the “American Kitchen Magazine” leads me to believe it contained some variety of flavoring extract.
The four ounce bottle does not fit one of the advertised sizes so, assuming they didn’t add a four ounce size in the late 1800’s, it likely contained one of Burnett’s other “Standard Preparations.” The bottle closely resembles the size and shape of the bottle in this 1879 Kalliston advertisement found in their Floral Journal and Ladies Calendar so I’m leaning in that direction.
It certainly did not contain their Cocoaine or Cologne Water as both were sold in uniquely shaped bottles.