Friday, March 4, 2016

Mentholatum, a Buffalo Company

By Matthew Shoen Associate Architectural Historian at Preservation Studios 

In 1889 the Mentholatum Company was founded in Wichita, Kansas by a bankrupt real estate speculator named Albert Alexander Hyde who had a little over $600 available to invest following the collapse of his real estate ventures. In 1904 Hyde took his company on the road, beginning a relationship with Buffalo that continues to the present day. The most important building in Hyde’s Buffalo venture was the Mentholatum Factory at 1360 Niagara Street which has been getting major press for proposals that are looking to remodel it into an apartment complex. Given this, I felt it would be good to look back and reflect on Mentholatum, both as a product, and a company which has influenced life in Buffalo for over one-hundred years.
Mentholatum advertisement from
The Mentholatum Company specialized in menthol based health and beauty products, and was advertised as a home remedy for cold symptoms. Think Vicks before Vicks even existed.[1] The product is a mix of menthol, camphor, and petrolatum while the name was created from a portmanteau of menthol and petrolatum. Camphor is however the main ingredient in Mentholatum. Because menthol was a much more exotic product in 1889 it got the privilege of forming half the company’s name otherwise we might have the Camphorlatum Factory to discuss.

As a product and a company, Mentholatum developed in the wild era of patent medicine and quackery. The average American in the nineteenth and early twentieth century had no access to regular medical care. Doctors were either too far away or too expensive; worse, medical care was still incredibly suspect during these years with mercury laced mineral supplements being a popular treatment plan for the ill. A trip to the doctor was quite frankly a dangerous affair so many families would turn to patent medicines which were peddled by quacks who offered their products up as wonder cures for all sorts of ailments ranging from the cold to leprosy, cancer, and syphilis. These products were almost universally useless, and in instances when they weren’t it was because they’d been mixed with cocaine or morphine to dull pain!
A miraculous elixir! Photo from The Outlaw Josey Wales

Mentholatum was both a part of the quack medicine industry and an outlier of it. The company’s early advertisements highlight how unique the product was, playing off the “mystical” healing properties of menthol. However, as proven by the company’s survival of the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act, Mentholatum actually possessed some meaningful health benefits, especially in the realm of congestion relief and muscle aches.[2] Oftentimes families who could not afford regular medical care would own a small collection of salves and ointments such as Mentholatum. At a time when illness was such a danger, especially to small children, products like Mentholatum were the only protection parents and spouses had. Because of this, the company carved a place for itself in the public eye for a number of years as a must have for worried mothers with small children suffering from the cold or flu.

As a company Mentholatum has over a century of history here in Buffalo starting in 1904 with the erection of their first factory on South Division Street. This was followed in 1919 with the building of their impressive factory at 1360 Niagara Street. The Niagara Street factory would become the most important structure in the company’s North American holdings. For years it supplied the western world (except Canada) with Mentholatum, producing up to 500,000 packages each week. The factory employed around seventy-five people but was mostly automated. The Courier-Express detailed the workings of the factory in a long article run as part of an overview of the biggest companies in Buffalo.

Mixed to strict composition in vats equipped with special agitators and heat controls, the liquid [Mentholatum] is piped to an ingenious assembly line machine, designed by company engineers, that fills, cools, caps and labels in a single operation. Waiting jars are cleaned and sterilized by vacuum suction and ultraviolet light. A rotary liquid filler loads the jars, which travel a series of cooling racks for about five minutes as the liquid begins to harden into an ointment. A screw capper and automatic labeler compete the jar for packing.[3]

More than a factory site, Buffalo soon became a corporate home for Mentholatum. In 1945 the company decided to bring its corporate structure into the Niagara Street factory which had a dedicated office space on the first floor. The corporate offices stayed in place until 1996 when Mentholatum closed up the Buffalo factory and moved the American corporate headquarters to their present location in Orchard Park. 

Despite the fact that Mentholatum has been overtaken in almost all respects by Vicks, it nonetheless should be remembered as a quintessentially Buffalonian product in the same way we look at sponge candy or loganberry flavored soda. For over a century the Mentholatum Company has provided jobs in Buffalo, and now ninety-seven years after its construction, the Mentholatum factory at 1360 Niagara Street looks poised to become the centerpiece of a revival along Niagara Street proving that the relationship between the City of Buffalo and the Mentholatum Company is not quite finished.

[1] Mentholatum had the opportunity to purchase Vicks but passed, considering the small company no threat. Soon after Spanish Flu struck sending America into a panic and boosting the sale of Vicks through the roof instantly transforming it into Mentholatum’s number one competitor.
[2] Congestion, muscle aches, and chapped lips are the primary symptoms Mentholatum is used to cure in the twenty-first century.
[3] Lee Griggs, “$600 Investment Parlayed into Worldwide Business.” Buffalo-Courier Express, August 31, 1952.

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