In 1909, Leonard Parry of Mansfield discovered what he called a liquid cure for Tuberculosis, and by 1920 his concoction had turned into a fruitful business of 14 different vegetable compounds for various ailments.
Parry’s sold all over the country and became essential to a sizable clientele, according to the hundreds of testimonials printed in newspapers from New Jersey to Nebraska.
It would be easy to dismiss this little venture as an episode in the grand American tradition of Snake Oil salesmen, but there is more to the story worth considering. All you have to do is look at financial documentation that surfaced during a 1918 law suit.
Numbers came out that weren’t merely dubious newspaper advertising testimonials, but rather sworn court testimony, to the effect that enough bottles of Parry’s Vegetable Compound sold that year to rake in what today would be nearly three million dollars. The next year, when the Federal Government refused to let Parry sell any of his bottles through the mail, after a high-profile court case served to advertise his claims all over the nation, his profits were closer to five million.
So, the stuff was real enough.
In 1922, however, it had a moment of truth.
Truth or Dare
Parry had been making his Vegetable Compound since 1910, several years after the U.S. Congress had cracked down on Snake Oil elixirs by enacting the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.
So presumably there was some truth in his advertising.
His troubles with the law weren’t about the composition of the nostrums he promoted, but rather with the assumption folks held that his illness-curing meant he must be a doctor.
Leonard Parry was the first to assert that he had no medical degrees. He had, rather, a calling. He was morally compelled to help people.
When he dosed ailing folks with one of his Compounds they felt better. It was as simple as that.
He started in the back room of his house on East Second Street in Mansfield, but by 1915 he was keeping office hours in Pittsburgh where his clients could number up to 2,400 a week. His success impacted such a broad-based demographic that there were chauffeur-driven Carnegies sitting on his bench waiting to see Parry seated next to soot-covered steel workers.
Each of those countless customers, on site or through the mail, paid $.50 to $1.50 for his funny little skinny-neck cork-stoppered bottles with the green label. They bought them all over the Midwest. In fact, there were drug stores and barber shops advertising Parry’s from New York to California, in at least half the states of the Union.
Parry’s Vegetable Compound was a colossal train rolling across the years from 1915 to 1935. There were occasional sidetracks for Leonard Parry, but that never stopped the sales of his Compound.
He was arrested five times for curing people without a license. It always happened right after someone died—a woman with cancer, a boy riddled with diagnoses. The survivors got incensed, the authorities did their duty, but none of it stuck for very long. He was sentenced to six months one time, but when the sentence was suspended the crowd of women in the courtroom burst into spontaneous applause.
These tribulations didn’t amount to much, but the trials did serve to bring out some interesting evidence.
Truth or Alternative Truth
In 1910, Mr. Parry testified as to where the secret formula came from:
In 1915, however, when talking to a reporter he remembered it differently:
Then in 1922, his secret formula was raking in so much green that his stockholders staged a coup to swipe the whole works from him. At that time, when it was all up for grabs, an all-new origin story emerged:
In the 1920s, the stockholder pirate part of the sales operation was pushing Parry’s in its original discreet plain green label, which forced Leonard Parry to rebrand his product.
In order to certify the authentic source of his remedy he began putting his face and signature on every box and bottle that came out of his factory.
At the same time, customers could purchase the identical tonic in a whole new bootleg version called Vitazone, also bottled in Mansfield.
So you can see there was a considerable volume of Parry’s Compound, both authentic and spurious, circulating in the home health world for quite a while. Perhaps the reason for this could be best understood by examining the results of a 1920 analysis made of the contents of an authentic Parry’s bottle.
The chemical findings were published in the December 1920 Journal of the American Medical Association. According to JAMA, Parry’s Vegetable Compound was 25% alcohol. It proved to be especially effective at treating any discomfort after 1920 when alcohol became outlawed, because each bottle of his patent medicine had more booze in it than anything they were legally allowed to sell in saloons.
In JAMA it said,
“Each bottle contains 6 2/3 ounces, of which one-fourth is alcohol. A dose is considered the contents of one bottle! It is easily conceivable that such a dose—equal to two stiff highballs—would change the outlook of the taker and possibly cause him to view Parry’s quackery in a tolerant light.”
Images, relics or anecdotes in this article come from the Mark Hertzler collection, the North Central Ohio Industrial Museum, John Stark, and Reid Carlson.