This article focuses on revenue stamps and private proprietary stamps used in the U.S. in the 19th century, noting the values (such as one cent, two cent, and three cent) and colors (such as black, green, and orange) and describing examples of products that were required to use the stamps and the designs the companies chose. It originally appeared in the September 1943 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.
Ring’s Vegetable Ambrosia, a hair restorative concocted by a New Hampshire dentist, was one of the many patent medicine preparations which helped pay for the Civil War by wearing on its package a nicely engraved, circular revenue stamp picturing the bearded dentist. It was a tax like the one you are now paying on your favorite talcum powder or lipstick to help defray the terrific cost of the current global skirmish.
Revenue stamps, issued under the Revenue Act of 1862, produced in the next twenty-one years some $192,000,000, which met a large hunk of the Civil War bill. These stamps were required on all papers showing a transfer of property, and on such assorted luxuries as playing cards, perfume, matches, patent medicine, photographs and canned fruit.
To collect the tax on these items, two kinds of stamps were used — United States revenue stamps, for the most part bearing George Washington’s head, and private proprietary stamps, which pictured a trademark or whatever design the proprietor fancied would help advertise and sell his product. Collectors call the latter group match and medicine stamps, and they were the ones which raised two-thirds of the stamp-produced $192,000,000.
They appeal as collector’s items because they are well engraved by Butler & Carpenter of Philadelphia, which held the government contract for stamp engraving and printing, because they show such originality of design, because they have the authentic flavor of mid-Victorian America and because they recall the curious lore of those all-powerful panaceas, the patent medicines.
Furthermore, these match and medicine stamps differ from other revenue issues by often appearing in very odd sizes and shapes. Some were even printed on wrappers.
The four cent black stamp that was stuck on each bottle of Philander Ring’s Ambrosia is a conservative example of the patent medicine stamp. The bearded gent is not Philander, who was a super Yankee peddler, but his partner, Dr. Elisha Munroe Tubbs of Peterborough and Manchester, N. H. This Ambrosia was whipped up by Dentist Tubbs after analyzing a bottle of Hall’s Vegetable Sicilian Hair Renewer which Ring was peddling for a druggist, Reuben P. Hall, who claimed he got the formula from a penniless Italian sailor. Tubbs was sure his tonic would restore gray hair to its original hue, was less obnoxious in smell than Hall’s and so had it beaten as a hair dressing.
He picked the fancy name, according to Henry W. Holcombe, leading authority on match and medicine stamps and their historical background after reading a poem describing Jove, who “Shakes his ambrosial locks and gives the nod, the stamp of fate, the sanction of a god.” Later, in 1873, Tubbs brewed a new preparation, Tubbs’ Universal Pain Eradicator, for which a two cent blue stamp of the same flowing-beard design was printed.
Harry P. Ring, son of the peripatetic Philander, when interviewed a few years ago by Mr. Holcombe, made a comment which would fit many of the match and medicine stamps:
“The revenue stamps no longer exist except in the albums of collectors. Even today, we receive inquiries concerning these stamps, and had the popularity of stamp collecting been foreseen by the owners of these preparations, the investment of a few hundreds of dollars in revenue stamps would have been of greater profit than the sales of the articles.”
Whiskers played a prominent role on these stamps because the manufacturers wanted to make a certain impression on the public.
“We see a few full beards, then on to sideburns, weepers, Dundreary types, full Galways, goatees and ‘General Grants’ to the mustaches,” points out Mr. Holcombe. “Altogether they give us an especially vivid idea of what the ‘doctor’ of the period looked like. The proprietors really exerted themselves over these designs, because the stamps not only indicated the tax paid, but were of inestimable advertising value. They show us personal interests, period style and something of the current attitude toward medicine.”
Dalley’s Galvanic Horse Salve provided a large stamp in a rich green, picturing a farm scene with a pair of thoroughbred horses in the foreground. Mr. Holcombe, who has formed the outstanding collection of match and medicine stamps, thinks Dalley’s is the handsomest design.
In 1864, Harper’s Weekly was running an advertisement for Redding’s Russia Salve, a “happy combination” of yellow wax, sweet oil and glycerine produced by a Boston firm. The ad read:
“A Real Pain Extractor. It reduces the most angry-looking Swellings and inflamations, heals old Sores, Wounds, Burns, Scalds, &c., &c., as if by magic. Only 25 cents a box.”
Striving for Muscovite atmosphere, the Redding stamp, a one cent black, depicts a Cossack who has dismounted and is dressing the wounds of another Cossack while his horse stands beside them in the snow. A rifle leans dangerously against the horse.
George Tallcot, whose Magic Cure is immortalized by a two cent vermillion and a four cent black stamp picturing a pill, started in 1870 to roll his pills at night in a back upstairs room at 96 Liberty Street, New York. He peddled them next day from door to door for a dollar a box, Mr. Holcombe learned in his researches. Tallcot’s advertisements in country newspapers caused orders to pour in, and his little business grew rapidly. The four cent Magic Cure stamp on pink paper is rare because Tallcot didn’t like the paper when the stamps came, so he used only a few and sent the rest back to the printers. Two of these on pink paper were found in Indiana and sold for $5 apiece in 1888. Today this stamp is valued at $500.
Besides the pink paper, match and medicine stamps are found on “old” paper (hard wove), “silk” paper (with threads) and watermarked paper.
Merchant’s Celebrated Gargling Oil for Horses had two exotic little stamps, one cent black and two cent green, which supposedly picture two Arabs in the desert, one holding a spirited Arabian horse by the bridle and the other kneeling and rubbing one of the horse’s forelegs with the contents of a bottle of Merchant’s Oil. This oil was really “A Liniment for Man & Beast,” and the horses didn’t have to gargle it. Dr. George W. Merchant, a graduate of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, mixed and bottled his marvelous liniment at Lockport, New York.
“No other Remedy ever known covers so wide a range of application to the diseases of Horses, Cattle, Hogs, Poultry, Sheep, Etc., as the Celebrated Gargling Oil,” Merchant modestly claimed in his announcements to circus managers, liverymen, firemen, race horse owners, dog breeders, veterinarians and farmers. Only their imaginations limited the manufacturers in their claims for their proprietaries.
The Holman Liver Pad Company claimed “more than 100,000 absolute cures performed by the Holman absorption system.” Its awe-inspiring anti-fever and ague pad was packed with May apple root, leptandra root, bayberry bark, fenungreek, guiaiac resin and oil of eucalyptus, Mr. Holcombe learned after delving in company records. He found an advertisement in Harper’s Weekly in 1876 which termed this pad “The Best Liver Regulator in the World. The only true cure for and preventative of Malaria, in all its forms, Liver Complaint, Jaundice, Dyspepsia, Rheumatism, Yellow Fever, Sea-Sickness, Neuralgia, Bilious Disorders, &c., &c.” The two Holman stamps (one and four cent green) showed Dr. George W. Holman, or rather his upper half, attired solely in a beard and a liver pad.
Wright’s Indian Vegetable Pills, which were blackish-brown and came 18 to a wooden box, had a stamp picturing Dr. William Wright. These pills were “recommended for temporary constipation.” The same firm later acquired Roman Eye Balsam and Dead Shot — D H. F. Peery’s Vermifuge, “a preparation for removing round, and stomach worms in children and adults.”
The Tarrant & Co. four cent red stain showed a mortar and pestle atop a pile of books, and indicated the tax payment on “Tarrant’s Effervescent Seltzer Aperient.” It was advertised in Harper Weekly in 1863 as “a gentle and efficient purgative,” also effective for “dyspepsia and bilious complaints, headaches, constipation, piles, &c.” Druggist Tarrant said it “should be taken in the spring to remove that feeling of lassitude.”
One of the best known old timers, Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, had no private die stamps. Its makers evidently were content to use the less distinguished government-issued revenue stamps.
When James Swaim ordered his six cent orange stamp for Swaim’s Panacea, he had to pay $60 for the die. The Wright’s Indian Vegetable Pills die cost $150, and Hostettet & Smith paid $250 for the die for the four cent black portrait stamp which adorned Hostetter’s Celebrated Stomach Bitters. In 1863, the engravers started to charge a flat price of $350 for each private die. But Mr. Holcombe says a couple of the larger ones cost more, like Fred Brown’s two cent profile of Washington design, a $400 job for his Essence of Jamaica Ginger.
If a manufacturer bought $500 worth or more of the regular government series of documentary and proprietary stamps, he got a five per cent discount, but if he had a private die made, he was allowed a ten per cent discount on the same amount. The discount was paid as a bonus in stamps.
The match stamps, printed for 128 firms, were to pay a tax of one cent per hundred matches. These, again, showed considerable originality in design.
Pierce Match Company of Chicago chose a volcano in eruption as its stamp design. The Penn Match Company of Philadelphia conservatively used William Penn’s portrait. A deer’s head served the Union Match Co. The Park City Match Company of Kenosha, Wisconsin, had an eagle on its three cent orange stamp. The New York State coat-of-arms adorned the one cent blue stamp of the National Match Company. A Covington, Kentucky, firm introduced a rooster holding a lighted match or cigar in its beak. Other match stamp designs included a waving American flag, a pine tree, Masonic symbols, a hand holding a burning match, the Lamp of Learning, a locomotive, anchor, phoenix, heads of Washington and Franklin, and so forth.
The only important forgery of these stamps, says Mr. Holcombe, was the work, of Benoni Howard of the New York Match Company.
“Howard quarrelled with the government, claiming he had been cheated in his stamp purchases,” Mr. Holcombe relates. “The government noted he thereafter did not buy as many stamps, and set a watch on him. Before long, boxes of Howard’s matches were found on the market unstamped, and the government shut up the plant and ruined his business. Nothing more serious was suspected until nearly a year later a fisherman hauled up from the East River a match-stamp die bearing Howard’s name. Howard fled to Canada, but was brought back and sentenced to five years at hard labor.”
Eleven perfumery and cosmetic manufacturers and eleven makers of playing cards had private die stamps. A single canned fruit stamp was prepared for T. Kensett & Co.
But the favorites of the match and medicine stamp collectors are usually the cure-all patent medicine ones which helped plug Barry’s Tricopherous, Scheetz’s Bitter Cordial, Schenck’s Pulmonic Syrup and the others. You can almost see the rows of boxes and bottles — all super panaceas — on the drugstore shelf eighty years ago.
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.