The Crooked Lake Review

Spring 2005

Home Index Museums Blog Authors Site Map About


The Brown Bottle Empire of
H. H. Warner

The Story of Hulbert Harrington Warner


Donovan A. Shilling

There was a time, not so long ago, when we thought that all of our ills might be cured by drinking the contents from a big brown bottle. The label promised us good health and quick relief from dozens of afflictions. In large black letters we read the word "CURE." Just before retiring, the brown bottle was uncorked and a strong medicinal aroma assailed our noses. Sometimes it brought tears to the eyes and almost always wrinkles to the nose. A teaspoon or more of the restorative liquid was poured. We courageously downed a mouthful of the dark amber colored fluid. We were sure the elixir must be good for us. It tasted terrible. It was p-o-t-e-n-t—and it almost always came in one flavor, very b-i-t-t-e-r. We'll probably feel better in the morning.

Just how the mania for patent medicine was created, how it swept the nation
and how it came to be placed in those brown bottles is the subject of this tale.

It all started down in Charlotte when a gentleman, known as "Dr." Charles Craig, began corking up bottles of his patented liver cure. Here the tale has two versions. The first is that the bitters bottle filler himself fell gravely ill with Bright's disease, that feared malady of the liver. He administered himself with major doses of his own nostrum. A miraculous cure ensued and he was soon free of all symptoms. The second version is that a very wealthy gentleman known as Hulbert H. Warner had developed the disease. According to his personal account, he took the purported cure and was promptly freed of the illness. Whatever the real story may be, we do know that Mr. Warner, who had been a highly successful salesman of burglar- and fire-proof Mosler office safes, was so impressed with the remedy that he purchased the rights to its patent in 1879.

Soon afterward H. H. Warner was promoting the healing compound in his own bottles labeled with a symbolic four-leaf clover. He claimed that he wished to bring the marvelous potion that had luckily cured him of Bright's disease to all the afflicted citizens of the nation. He initiated the production of his "cure" in a six-story building on Exchange Street. It was here that, with sudden inspiration, he changed his logo. His new byword became "SAFE." Thus, by combining his former occupation of selling office safes with his new venture, he had a winning combination. Now embossed on his brown bottles was an immense office safe. It was a dynamite idea. After all, who wouldn't go for a product that was safe? So the new label proudly proclaimed the merits of H. H. Warner's Safe Cure.

Warner had a great gift. He had a genuine talent for advertising. Perhaps he had learned some tips from our Flower City's numerous nurserymen who were outstanding advertisers. At any rate he was sending out up to 150,000 pieces of advertising per day at an annual cost of $500,000. He sent out samples of the Safe Cure, almanacs, cookbooks, letters containing testimonials and bold, colored posters promoting his patented potions and pills. The advertising was usually done by one of Rochester's lithographic firms. An 1884 catalog of city industries lists an ad from Mensing & Stecher Lithographers. A paragraph reads:

"The house has just executed for Messrs. H. H. Warner & Co., the celebrated Safe Remedy manufacturers, a cover for a pamphlet, the circulation of which exceeds the enormous figures of ten million copies."

Through this massive advertising technique his business rapidly expanded to the point where new facilities were needed. In 1883 he proposed to build an eight story, 4-acre structure to hold his expanding laboratories, mailing, storage and bottling rooms plus more generous shipping facilities. Additionally he needed a whole floor devoted to his latest development, "Warner's Safe Yeast." Mr. Warner therefore, took an option on a St. Paul Street location and sought a special variance from the City for a wider street.

The City Council balked at this requested widening of St. Paul Street from 66 to 76 feet in front of his projected structure. They stood steadfast in denying him this setback until they heard rumors that Warner was planning to leave town for New York City. There, according to the story, Warner could build his new building without the narrow-mindedness he found here. The very next time you find yourself opposite the Chamber of Commerce on St. Paul Street, in front of the Warner Block, check the width of the road. Notice that, apparently for some unknown reason, the setback did not continue to East Main Street. H. H. Warner, however, was granted his ten foot variance.

Happily, on Hulbert's forty-second birthday in 1884, his splendid, new edifice was completed. At the celebration, Warner received perhaps the biggest birthday gift any Rochesterian was ever presented. The $250,000 block would handle 7000 gallons of "tonic" per day, enough to fill up 56,000 brown bottles to be sold at $1.25 each. That would bring in a return of $70,000 daily. We'd call that a most satisfactory income in the 1880s.

The entrepreneurship of Warner, his forceful spirit, and his ever-growing product line, all combined to make the St. Paul Street address the largest proprietary medicine business in the world. His leading products included "Warner's Safe Cure," "Warner's Safe Pills," and "Warner's Safe Rheumatic Cure." Also popular was "Warner's Safe Diabetes Cure"; "Warner's Safe Asthma Cure"; "Warner's Tippecanoe, the Best"; and "Warner's Safe Nervine." Most of these liquid medicines were carried in the familiar brown bottles that were sold across drug and general store counters throughout America.

Beyond our shores the name of Warner spread as laboratories were established in major large cities around the world. While the largest H. H. Warner branch was in London England, other branches were set up in Toronto, Canada; Melbourne, Australia; Frankfort, Germany; Prague, Austria (now Czechoslovakia); and Rangoon, Burma. By the time he was 45, H. H. Warner was one of the wealthiest and most respected men in our city.

In 1887 Hulbert Warner brought out a whole new line of medicinal "miracles." He carefully avoided using the word "cure" on these new labels. Now his advertising skillfully employed the word "remedy" to describe the preparations. These remedies were cleverly tied to our nation's pioneering spirit and hearkened back to our early ingenuity in finding cures from nature. The new products therefore, were concocted largely of alcohol spiced with native roots and herbs. They were also directed at "remedying" a very different set of maladies than his former medicines. Thus, it was that H. H. Warner's LOG CABIN REMEDIES reached the shelves of Victorian America. Included in this newest line were "Warner's Log Cabin Sarsaparilla," "Warner's Log Cabin Hops and Buchu Remedy," "Warner's Log Cabin Cough and Consumption Remedy," "Warner's Log Cabin Scalpine" (for dandruff, etc.), "Warner's Log Cabin Rose Cream" (for catarrh, that's inflamed nasal passages) and finally the general purpose "Warner's Log Cabin Extract." This last remedy could be used both internally as well as externally. It was, perhaps, the most popular remedy in the Log Cabin line. The directions provided the following helpful information:

An Old Fashioned
Perfectly Harmless

For Rheumatism, Neuralgia, Burns, Scalds, Sprains, Bruises, Insect Bites, Chapped Hands, Chilblains, Pain in the Back, Lungs, Sides, Limbs; Swollen or Stiff Joints; Contracted Tendons; Inflamed Breasts; Corns; Toothache; Sunburn; Face Acne; Sore Throat; Mumps; Frost Bites; Stings; Gurry Sores & Etc.

Directions — Bathe the affected parts frequently. Rub it in thoroughly. Take some internally also.


For Cramps, Cholera Morbus, Dysentery, Diarrhoea, Summer Complaints, Colic, Pleurisy, Croup, Hemorrhages of all kinds, Asthma, Coughs, Colds, Etc.

Ordinary Dose for Adults: Until relieved take every half hour one teaspoon diluted with three parts of sweetened water or milk. Children: one half the above. For Infants dilute to 10 to 15 drops.




Rochester, N. Y.

As can be seen, with a preparation like this, who wouldn't want to have a bottle or two on the shelf at all times? Of course, there was intense competition in the patent medicine business at the time. It seemed that every small town and large city had its share of patent pill purveyors. We understand that prior to 1906 one didn't so much get a patent on the contents of the remedy, but instead, on the names and symbols that appeared embossed on the bottles, the labels and the cardboard containers.

Today, there are only a handful of patent medicines that have survived both time and the Pure Food and Drug laws enacted in 1906. Only two, Sloan's Liniment and Carter's Little Liver Pills, come to mind. Even the Carter Company had to drop the word "liver" from its labels.

Locally the "patent medicine king" was held in very high esteem. Going through some vintage publications gives us added insight into the respect accorded Mr. Warner. An 1888 booklet called "The Industries of City of Rochester" bears a fine line drawing of Mr. Warner and reports the following:

Mr. Warner is himself a young man, having been born in 1842. He is a very public-spirited, wide-awake, highly respected citizen of Rochester, as is evident from the fact that on the 21st of December, 1887, he was elected President of the newly organized Chamber of Commerce, consisting of about 300 of the leading business firms and their representatives in Rochester. He has also occupied prominent political positions, having been a member of the State Republican Committee, and of the Executive Committee of that committee. He is a man of large frame, fair complexion, blue eyes, and of great energy and resolution in everything he undertakes.

The vast empire built of brown bottles was to shatter in the financial panic of 1893. Warner had made ill-advised investments in gold mines, oil and other "sure things." He had not been prudent in his financial planning and was unable to meet demand notes during this unsettled period.

H. H. Warner, who had been possibly the greatest patent medicine man in the nation, left his beloved city. In a much more humble manner "Dr." Warner would conduct a modest proprietary medicine business in the Midwest until he passed away in 1913.

Rochester may never again be host to a man or a business that was run with quite the same remarkable flair that Hulbert Warner and his Safe Cures provided. His legacy was a Swiss-chalet-style home on the corner of East Avenue and Goodman Street, a three-story astronomical observatory at the corner of Arnold Park and East Avenue, a steam yacht named "Siesta," an eight-story business block and a partially widened St. Paul Street and, of course, the establishment of our city's Chamber of Commerce. Most of these monuments to Warner are gone today. However there is something left which might interest us. The next time you ramble through a local flea market or antique show, look for one of those brown bottles. It too, is a legacy from H. H. Warner, Rochester's patent medicine king.

2005, Donovan A. Shilling
CLR Blog | Site Map | Contact CLR