Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root Kidney, Liver and Bladder Remedy was one of the late 19th/early 20th century’s most popular and, at the same time, most notorious patent medicines. A September 3, 1904 item in a publication called “The Rural New Yorker,” described it as a cure for a wide range of ailments that even included a hangover.
Dr Kilmer’s Swamp Root, the great kidney remedy, fulfills every wish in promptly curing kidney, bladder and uric acid troubles, rheumatism and pain in the back. It corrects inability to hold water and scalding pain in passing it, or bad effects following use of liquor, wine or beer, and overcomes that unpleasant necessity of bing compelled to go often during the day and to get up many times during the night. The mild and the extraordinary effect of Swamp Root is soon realized. It stands the highest for its wonderful cures of the most distressing cases.
Its manufacturer, the Dr. Kilmer Company was, at the turn of the century, Binghamton, New York’s leading industry. Originally established by S. Andral Kilmer; later it was his brother Jonas Kilmer and nephew Willis Sharpe Kilmer who ultimately catapulted the business into national prominence, becoming two of Binghamton’s most influential citizens along the way.
The extent of their wealth and power was documented in a May 11, 1912 story published in Collier’s Magazine.
Two Kilmer’s – father and son – Jonas M. and Willis Sharpe, manufacture and vend Swamp Root. It is today the leading industry of the lively and progressive little city where it is made, Binghamton, New York. The fortune derived from it is variously estimated at from ten to fifteen millions, all accumulated in the last twenty years. The Kilmer house is the most expensive in Binghamton. The two Kilmer buildings are the finest business blocks in the city, with one exception. The Kilmer’s newspaper, the “Binghamton Press,” has the largest circulation in that part of the state. The People’s Bank (Jonas Kilmer, president; Willis Sharpe Kilmer, vice president) is a strong and growing institution. Jonas Kilmer has been police commissioner of the city. Willis Kilmer has had congressional aspirations. In every phase of existence in Binghamton, except perhaps in the social phase, the Kilmer’s are powerful – and feared.
Then, pulling no punches, the story went on to say:
All this wealth, all this power, all this influence rests on a foundation of pure fraud and knavery; has been built up by a business acumen as disreputable as that of the card sharp, as ruthless as that of the burglar who will kill, if need be, in order to make his haul.
That being said, I’m getting a little ahead of myself, so let’s go back and start at the beginning with S. Andral Kilmer.
The “History of the Kilmer Family in America,” published in 1897, stated that he was born in Cobbleskill, New York, in December, 1840, and began the study of medicine at the age of 18. It goes on to say:
After a successful tour of medical lectures and practice in the West, Dr Kilmer settled in Binghamton buying and building a residence on the plot where the extensive Kilmer Medicine Works are now located. He was first employed in visiting surrounding cities on advertised days, in which practice he was so famous and successful that he was soon enabled to commence the erection of his laboratory buildings for the preparation of his remedies…
The first listing I can find for him in the Binghamton directories was in 1871, when he was listed as a physician living in the Mechanics Hotel. I suspect that he settled in Binghamton around that time and initially lived in the hotel prior to establishing his residence and laboratory. Located at the corner of Chenango and Virgil Streets, this photograph of his first laboratory appeared years later as the early half of a “now and then” item published in the March 13, 1988 edition of Binghamton’s Sun and Press Bulletin.
The Kilmer History goes on to say that his younger brother, Jonas M. Kilmer joined him in business in 1878 and they became equal partners in 1881.
It was around this time that the two began to manufacture and market a wide range of remedies attributed to Dr. Kilmer. A partial list of these early remedies was included in an item promoting his medical practice that was published in the 1884 edition of nearby Syracuse University’s “The Onondagan.”
A story written years later, by Jerome B. Hadsell, a long time executive of Dr. Kilmer & Co., included this recollection of the fledgling business in the late 1880’s. The story was published at the time of Willis Sharpe Kilmer’s death in the July 13, 1940 edition of the Binghamton Press & Sun.
…it was what you might call a modest establishment. Neither J. M. nor his brother had much capital. Neither had any advertising experience or much experience in promotion. J. M. was a good salesman, but promotion and advertising were not then the sciences they have since become.
They were manufacturing everything at the time. I say everything; it seemed like everything. Swamproot, then as later, was the outstanding product. But they had cancer medicines, consumption medicine, pills, ointments – practically a full line of home remedies for all sorts of complaints.
Their merchandising methods were limited to the consignment basis. Goods were billed out and paid for as they were sold by storekeepers with remittances every 30 days. There was no particular incentive on the part of the storekeepers to move the merchandise, and collections were not exactly good.
Up to that time the advertising of Kilmer’s remedies was done exclusively on a local basis, predominantly consisting of painted wooden signs, posters and packaged circulars. The only newspaper exposure that I can find was a series of 1883 advertisements that appeared in neighboring Carbondale Pennsylvania’s local newspaper, The Advance. Each advertisement contained S. Andral Kilmer’s likeness and featured one of his remedies. One was Swamp Root; another was”Dr. Kilmer’s Ocean Weed Heart Remedy. Both are shown below.
Things began to change in 1892 when S. Andral Kilmer sold his share of the patent medicine business to Jonas. Now, as the sole owner, Jonas put his son Willis Sharpe Kilmer in charge of advertising. According to Hadsell this was the turning point of the business.
Jonas M. Kilmer was comfortable enough but the business was not exactly thriving. As a matter of fact the real expansion, development and prosperity of the business dated from the time when Willis Sharpe Kilmer became actively interested in it.
Hadsell’s story went on to say:
Willis began to buy space in country weeklies in this section, and to turn out, at first under his father’s direction, the sort of advertising copy which was later to make the business grow by leaps and bounds. At first just a few newspapers in the Southern Tier were used but that advertising showed almost immediate results. It was a fascinating thing for all of us to see the power and pull that could be developed by the use of ingenuity, patience and black and white type.
Within a few years, and I would say no more than eight after he started, we were beginning to ship out in carload lots all over the eastern United States.
The company remained at their original location until 1900 when a fire gutted the facility, forcing a move to temporary quarters. The fire and resultant move were reported in the August, 1900 edition of the National Druggist.
The fire which destroyed the immense Swamp Root medicine plant of Dr. Kilmer & Co., July 1, was the most disastrous which has ever occurred in Binghamton. However, the Kilmer’s resumed business next morning, though not at the old stand, which is a heap of smoldering ashes. While the firemen were yet pouring water on the burning Chenango Street establishment, the Kilmer’s were arranging to do business somewhere else.
That this great industry might not be crippled for a moment, through the courtesy of other prominent firms and citizens, the large factory and adjoining buildings on South Street were vacated for the benefit of the Swamp Root people, and possession was taken immediately, and here, by Monday, July 8, this new temporary factory will be turning out Swamp Root, the great Kidney Remedy, in quantities of about 60,000 bottles per day, and in two or three weeks’ time the full capacity of more than four times that amount will be produced. The immense demand for Swamp Root will thus in no way be interfered with.
At the same time, according to Hadsell, the new and what turned out to be long time home of the Dr. Kilmer Company was being planned.
Immediately after we burned out at Virgil and Chenango Streets J. M. and Willis made arrangements for the purchase of the Lockwood property, on the corner at Lewis Street and the viaduct, now occupied by Dr. Kilmer & Co. There was no viaduct there then, and the lot was occupied by a wooden structure which had been a residence.
While under construction, a story in the December, 1902 edition of “Farmers Review” referred to the new building as “The Largest and Most Complete Laboratory in the World.”
The story described the eight story building as “tall and towering,” and went on to say:
It will stand for centuries. It has the finest of modern steel construction, with fireproof masonry and cement arches, not a piece of wood is used in the entire structure. It is situated on the most central and commanding site in the city, and has a frontage of 331 feet on Lewis Street, 345 feet on Chenango Street and 407 feet on Lackawana Avenue; its floor space amounts to the astonishing four and one-half acres.
A convenient switch connecting with the main lines of all railroads entering the city runs direct to the doors of the shipping department.
The building was occupied in the Fall of 1903. That year this rendering of the completed structure appeared in Binghamton’s Board of Trade Publication.
Hadsell’s recollections included this description of the business at about the time the building opened.
Of course the business had expanded considerably to justify the new building which was the leading structure in Binghamton at that time and has always been one of the ranking business establishments ever since. Before we moved to South Street we had started to ship in carload quantities and the trade had spread to the general line of the Mississippi River. Tariffs established some barriers to Canadian trade, but we had a flourishing field in practically the entire eastern United States with the growing emphasis south of the Mason Dixon Line.
By the early 1900’s, in addition to their Binghamton headquarters, company advertisements also listed a Kilmer office in Chicago as well as foreign offices in Rio De Janero, Brazil and Kingston, Jamaica.
According to Hadsell, advertising was fueling much, if not all of this growth.
I should say that shortly after we moved into the new building we were doing about $800,000 worth of advertising a year, with a great many page spreads, and that the business which had started so modestly was growing more than $2,000,000 every 12 months.
By the early 1900’s newspapers in every state of the nation were running Kilmer’s advertisements, many of which were taking up more than half of an entire page. One, published in the January 30, 1901 edition of the Detroit Free Press was typical of their advertising style. It lead with an eye catching headline.
It followed that with text that sold the idea that all disease was rooted in the kidneys and that if you heal the kidneys with Dr. Kilmer’s all of your other health issues will follow suit.
Kidney trouble is responsible for more sickness and suffering than any other disease, and if permitted to continue fatal results are sure to follow. Kidney trouble irritates the nerves, makes you dizzy, restless, sleepless and irritable. Makes you pass water often during the day and obliges you to get up many times during the night. Unhealthy kidneys cause rheumatism, gravel, catarrh of the bladder, pain or dull ache in the back, joints and muscles; makes your head ache and back ache, causes indigestion, stomach and liver trouble, you get a sallow yellow complexion, makes you feel as though you had heart trouble; you may have plenty of ambition, but no strength; get weak and waste away.
The kidneys filter and purify the blood – that is their work. So when your kidneys are weak or out of order you can understand how quickly your entire body is affected, and how every organ seems to fail to do its duty.
If you are sick or “feel badly,” begin taking the famous new discovery, Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root, because as soon as your kidney’s are well they will help all the other organs to health. A trial will convince anyone.
In taking Swamp Root you afford natural help to nature, for Swamp Root is the most perfect healer and gentle aid to the kidneys that is known to medical science. Swamp Root is pleasant to take and for sale the world over in bottles of two sizes and two prices – fifty cents and one dollar.
If you still weren’t convinced their advertisements typically suggested this (later debunked) simple test.
If there is any doubt in your mind as to your condition, take your urine on rising, about four ounces, place it in a glass or bottle and let it stand twenty-four hours. If on examination, it is milky or cloudy; if there is brick-dust settling, or if small particles float about in it, your kidneys are in need of immediate attention.
The rest of the page was filled with testimonials.
By the early 1900’s, increasing public awareness was leading to the investigation and ultimate exposure of the patent medicine industry’s plethora of false claims. In 1906, this resulted in legislation that prohibited false representation of a medicine’s benefits, forcing a change in Swamp Root’s labeling.
According to the 1912 Collier’s story written by Samuel Hopkins Adams and published under the heading: ” The Fraud Above the Law:”
Under the interpretation of the law, forbidding false representations on the label, Swamp Root dropped from its carton the legend: “Kidney, Liver, and Bladder Cure.” The claim of cure was untrue, and the Kilmer’s knowing it to be untrue, did not dare face the issue…
In the grand parade of confession which the food and drug law set a marching, Swamp Root was a conspicuous penitent. Applying the parallel column treatment, its admitted mendacity fairly smells to the skies:
Was ever a change of claim more significant! The revised label sedulously refrains from any misstatement of fact. Incidentally, and by omission, it admits the lies that the old label carried….
An unscientific review of the Kilmer bottle as it was depicted in newspaper advertisements that were published in the Buffalo (N.Y.) Inquirer reveals that the label change occurred sometime in 1908. The first, pictured below, appeared as late as April, 1908 and exhibited the word “cure,” the second, in December, 1908; remedy.
The Collier’s story didn’t stop there, also listing the ingredients of Swamp Root
What is Swamp Root? Essentially it is alcohol, sugar, water and flavoring matter, with a slight laxative principle. According to its label, it “contains the active medicinal properties of Swamp Root, Field Herbs and Healing Balsams.” But these ingredients are of such inconsiderable potency in the small amount contained, that they are practically negligible. Alcohol is the chief drug constituent of the mixture, the alcoholic strength being 9 percent, about that of champagne…
Collier’s questioned recommending alcohol for liver problems and sugar for diabetic trouble ultimately concluding:
While there is nothing in Swamp Root which will cure the patient of any disease specified in its promises, there are at least two main ingredients which will, in afflictions for which the nostrum is prescribed, give the sufferer a helping hand toward the grave.
Colliers even exposed the 24 hour urine test recommended in much of their advertising as a total scam. Described earlier in this post, their advertisements stated that any deposits found in a urine sample after it was left standing for 24 hours required immediate attention. According to Colliers anyone who performed the test would conclude they needed Swamp Root.
All urine deposits a sediment after standing twenty four hours. Yet the Kilmer’s deliberately circulate this falsehood in millions of homes in this country, endeavoring to frighten sound and well people into believing themselves endangered, in order to lure into the toils the readily impressionable. And the damnable feature of the matter is that it is actually possible to scare a certain type of person into becoming ill. Hence we see Swamp Root in another phase of devil work; not only preying on the sick, but even trying to inspire disease from which to wring blood money.
By the time the Collier’s story was published in 1912 U. S. sales of Swamp Root were beginning to decrease, so you’d think that this exposure would have signaled the end of the company, but you’d be wrong. Protected by wealth and political influence, and backed by the voice of their own newspaper, the business survived in what the Collier’s story concluded was “a copartnership of quackery, blood money and fraud nurtured journalism.”
The Kilmer family remained in control of the business throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s, during which time Willis Sharpe Kilmer was serving as president with Jonas having passed away back in 1912.
They continued to advertise heavily in the newspapers up through the mid 1920’s, and while the curative claims of Swamp Root had been toned down by then, the company’s advertising ethics remained questionable, as evidenced by this March 24, 1925 advertisement that connected Swamp Root with the ability to obtain insurance.
Below this headline the advertisement reported:
An examining physician for one of the prominent Life Insurance companies, in an interview of the subject, made the astonishing statement that one reason so many applicants for insurance are rejected is because kidney trouble is so common to the American people, and the large majority of those whose applications are declined do not even suspect that they have the disease. Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root is on sale at all drug stores in bottles of two sizes…
By the late 1920’s and 1930’s the company’s newspaper advertising had decreased significantly, and sales were certainly in decline. That being said, Swamp Root continued to be well represented in local drug store advertisements.
Ultimately, in July, 1940 Willis Sharpe Kilmer passed away and shortly afterwards his estate sold the business. The Binghamton Press and Sun Bulletin reported the sale in their April 18, 1941 issue.
Dr Kilmer Co. Purchased by N.Y. Concern.
The business of Dr. Kilmer & Co., Inc. makers of the proprietary medicine, Swamp Root, was sold today by the executors of the Kilmer estate to Ardibold, Inc., a recently incorporated New York City firm.
The purchasing firm, it was announced, will continue the business in the Kilmer building which has been the Kilmer & Co. headquarters since it was built in 1903.
Their commitment to remain in the Kilmer Building was short-lived. Less than a year after the acquisition, a September 3, 1941 story in the Binghamton Press and Sun Bulletin reported that the company was leaving their long time home in Binghamton.
Carlova Moves Into Swamp Root Building
Carlova Co., perfume and cosmetic manufacturer, moved into the Swamp Root building at 39-45 Lewis Street today, as A. Alexander, vice president and secretary of the concern, announced plans for the employment of between 500 and 800 persons at the Lewis Street building.
Occupancy of the building will be completed about Jan. 1, 1942, when Mr. Alexaner said, International Business Machines Corporation and Kilmer & Co., which now occupy space in the building move out…
A deed transferring the property from the estate of the late Willis Sharpe Kilmer to the perfumery and cosmetic concern was filed in the county clerk’s office today. Federal revenue stamps attached indicated a purchase price of approximately $140,000.
Apparently they continued to operate under the Kilmer & Company name after the acquisition. Advertisements for Swamp Root between 1942 and 1959 located the business in Stanford Connecticut, with some including the street address of 370 Fairfield Avenue.
Their first newspaper advertisements, published in 1942, now referred to Swamp Root as a stomachic and intestinal liquid “tonic.”
This October 13, 1959 newspaper advertisement is one of the last I can find. By then their message was simply:
Chances are that Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root medicine can help you the way it has helped millions of other people.
By the early 1960’s, the business was located in Plainview, on New York’s Long Island. According to a 1968 Cincinnati Enquirer story regarding patent medicines:
We are told that “Swamp Root” is still made by Kilmer & Co. at Plainview N. Y., and costs $1.35 for an 11-ounce bottle containing 10 1/2 % alcohol.
At this point I lose track of them so it’s not exactly clear how long the sale of Swamp Root extended beyond the late 1960’s.
The Kilmer Building located at the corner of Chenango and Lewis Streets still remains to this day. Opened in 1903 it’s exterior has changed little if at all over the years as evidenced by the following two photographs. The first appeared in Collier’s 1912 story. The second is current, courtesy of Google Earth.
A reminder of its original use still exists on today’s building facade.
According to the “Then and Now” feature in the March 13, 1988 edition of the Binghamton Press and Sun, their initial laboratory location at Virgil and Chenango Streets was demolished in the 1960’s to make way for an apartment complex.
The bottle I found is mouth blown and its embossing exhibits the word remedy, not cure. This dates it from approximately 1908 when they made the change from cure to remedy and sometime in the mid-teens when I’d expect a machine made bottle.
Around this time they were advertising both a 50 cent and one dollar size bottle. I suspect that this was the 50 cents size. I’ve also found a larger size, also mouth blown, that although not embossed, matches embossed examples found on the internet.
This suggests that it was either a labeled version of Kilmer’s larger size or produced by a knock-off company, a common occurrence back in the day.
On a Final Note: In 1892, after selling his share of the patent medicine business, S. Andral Kilmer continued to maintain a medical practice treating cancer patients. According to his January 15, 1924 obituary in the Oneonta (N.Y.) Star:
He had for many years been a resident of Binghamton, where for several years he was associated with his brother, Jonas M. Kilmer, in the proprietary medicine business. Later he retired from this business and was from 1892 largely engaged in the treatment of cancer, at first at Sanitaria Springs, later in Binghamton, and just before his death in the new Sanitarium at Sanitaria Springs, which he opened only last Thursday.
Also a brazen advertiser, his 1904 Binghamton Directory advertisement referred to him as the “Greatest Cancer and Tumor Doctor in all the World.”
During the course of his cancer practice, Dr. Kilmer & Company continued to imply through their merchandising that he was still associated with their patent medicine business. This resulted in a court battle between the two brothers. A story in the October 31, 1911 edition of the (Elmira N.Y.) Star Gazette laid out the issues that S. Andral Kilmer had with his former business.
KILMER CONCERNS FIGHT IN COURTS
Dr. S. Andral Kilmer avers that for more than 30 years (actually closer to 20 years) he has not been associated with Dr. Kilmer & Company, but has practiced in Binghamton, and for ten years past he has made a specialty of treating cancerous growths and allied diseases.
Dr. Andral Kilmer further contends that there is no “Dr. Kilmer” connected with Dr. Kilmer & Company at present, but that the latter company opens and puts to its own use letters addressed to “Dr. Kilmer,” “Dr. Kilmer Company,” etc., which are addressed and intended for him.
Dr. Andral Kilmer also objects to the use of his signature and photograph on the cartons of the Kilmer Company’s medicines, which he says is detrimental to his business.
In 1919, after eight years of litigation, the Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Dr. Kilmer & Company. As late as the 1960’s S. Andral Kilmer’s likeness and signature appeared on their packaging as evidenced by this 1960’s example bearing the Plainview New York location on the label.