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A Famous and Not-So-Famous Drug Company from 1894

Updated: Nov 8, 2022

These two covers were sent from Baltimore, Maryland to the same address in Lowell, Massachusetts - "J.C. Ayer Co." - just one week apart in 1894 (on May 23 and June 1, respectively). One has a return address, and the other does not, but given the same addressee and the same postmark (could be an "International" machine cancel from what I've researched), I suspect they were both sent by the same firm - "Englar, Kite, and Co., Importers and Wholesale Druggists."

Both covers are franked with a 2-cent stamp depicting the "Landing of Columbus." This was one of 16 commemorative stamps that the Post Office Department issued in 1893 to celebrate the World Columbian Exposition. Almost 1.5 billion copies of this 2-cent stamp were printed, which made sense given that 2-cents was the 1-ounce letter rate from 1885-1917. Consequently, this is a fairly common stamp; on a cover like those below, it has a catalog value of just 35-cents. Compare that to the $5 Columbian that had a print run of just 27,350 and has a catalog value on cover of $4,750!

J.C. Ayer & Co. was a well-known apothecary in its day with five major product lines: Sarsaparilla, Cherry Pectoral, Cathartic Pills, Hair Vigor and Ague Cure. (I don't think many of those would pass muster with today's FDA regulations!) It's bottles, advertising, etc. are highly collectible today.

The company was founded in 1841 by Dr. James Cook Ayer (Figure 5), who was described as "a man of indomitable energy, pluck, and perseverance. To him belongs the credit of making Lowell a familiar word throughout the world, for wherever his medicine went - and no corner of the globe was unvisited - the name of this city was carried."[i]

Dr. Ayer was born in Connecticut in 1818. His title of "Doctor" was conferred on him by virtue of a degree from the Philadelphia Medical University in 1860. He passed away in 1878 at age 60, supposedly on account of his ceaseless activities weighing heavily on his constitution. He is buried in the Lowell Cemetery with his spouse Josephine with whom he had three children. His company continued in business under family members and professional managers until about 1943.

As an aside but no doubt of interest to stamp collectors, J.C. Ayer & Co. was an early adopter of encased postage stamps as a means of addressing the coin shortage during the Civil War and as a way of advertising.[ii] Today, there is a whole section of the US Scott Specialized Stamp Catalog dedicated to encased postage stamps. Roughly 30 varieties of J.C. Ayer encased postage stamps are listed with catalog values ranging from $400 to $8,000. Figures 6 and 7 show one example that I have in my collection.

Englar, Kite & Co., on the other hand, is as obscure as J.C. Ayer & Co, is famous. The firm was founded in the mid-1880s by Jesse Englar of Maryland and David Millard Kite of Virginia. But in October 1894 - just a few months after these covers were sent to J.C. Ayer - Englar, Kite & Co. filed for bankruptcy and ceased operations. According to news reports, the firm was solvent, but collections were slow and that made it impossible to continue the business at a profit.

Jesse Englar ended up going to work for a China and glassware importer and distributor in Baltimore by the name of H.P. Chandlee Sons Co. He appears to have worked there from at least 1906 until his death in 1935 at age 78 or 79. He was buried in Pipe Creek Church of the Brethen Cemetery in Union Bridge, Maryland. That is in Carroll County where Jesse was born. He and his wife Columbia had two daughters.

David Millard Kite was born in Virginia in 1851 and is listed as a "druggist" in Virginia in the 1880 census. His name appears in the Baltimore City Directory in the 1890s when he was a partner of Englar & Kite, but by 1900 he is back in Virginia working as a druggist (the 1900 census) and as a commercial salesman of drugs (the 1910 census). He died in 1916 at age 64 or 65 when he "was struck and instantly killed by a fast northbound Southern Railway train at Nokesville, Va. ... when he endeavored to cross the tracks in front of the train."[iii] He was buried at the Presbyterian Cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia. He was survived by his wife, Anna Mary, and three daughters.

[iii] The Washington Post, June 5, 1916.

Figure 1 - Front

Figure 2 - Back

Figure 3 - Front

Figure 4 - Back

Figure 5 - James Cook Ayer, circa 1855-1870.

Figure 6 - Encased postage stamp, US Scott Catalog #EP13.

Figure 6 - Encased postage stamp obverse, US Scott Catalog #EP13.

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