Warner’s Safe Cure was a very successful patent medicine, aggressively marketed by Hulbert Harrington Warner. According to Joe Nickell “Warner (1842–1923) was a Rochester, New York, patent-medicine mogul. Having become wealthy in a previous business specializing in fire- and burglar-proof safes, he purchased a medicinal formula from a Rochester physician, Dr. Charles Craig. Warner would subsequently claim that Craig’s vegetable concoction had cured his Bright’s disease (a vague, obsolete designation for kidney disease) when he was near death. He introduced his Warner’s Safe Kidney & Liver Cure in 1879. Before long, the admired name of Craig was dropped from Warner’s advertisements—perhaps about the time Warner sued Craig for attempting to market a virtually identical ‘cure’.”
Wikipedia states that “In addition to his Kidney & Liver Cure, Warner also introduced a Safe Nervine, Safe Diabetes Cure, Safe Tonic, Safe Tonic Bitters, Safe Bitters, Safe Rheumatic Cure, Safe Pills, and later his Tippecanoe Bitters. The Warner’s patent medicine products, with the exception of the Safe Pills and Tippecanoe, appeared in a unique bottle, which featured an embossed safe on the front. This drew upon his earlier business and implied to his potential customers that his product posed no risk.”
Wikipedia notes “In January, 1884, Warner opened his new Rochester headquarters in a lavish multi-story building on St. Paul Street. The H. H. Warner Building became the centerpiece of his medicine production and turned out an estimated 7,000 US gallons (26,000 L) of Safe Cure per day. It also served as the headquarters for his promotional department, which published an untold number of almanac and advertising circulars distributed with his medicines to local druggists and grocers. The Warner Building still exists today and houses a variety of businesses. Its granite façade still bears the initial ‘W’.”
According to Stephen Jackson and his comprehensive Warner’s Safe Cure blog, “If you could point to only one quality of H. H. Warner that accounts for his phenomenal success in the fireproof safe business and then, most notably, in the patent medicine business, it would have to be his ability to market his products. He was, perhaps, decades ahead of his competitors in understanding the power of branding and establishing a product as a household favorite. Although he achieved this success through a variety of means, one of those means was simply visibility of his products in the newspapers. Between 1879 and 1893, when Warner was forced out of the business, he undoubtedly spent millions of dollars in print ads.
His advertising was not limited to major newspapers such as the New York Times or the Chicago Tribune. Indeed, Warner placed ads in newspapers large and small, including The Great Bend Weekly Tribune (Great Bend, Kansas) or The Commonwealth (Scotland Neck, NC). His advertising was designed to reach ordinary people throughout the United States. In order to do this, Warner relied upon his own in-house advertising department to distribute canned advertising to the various newspapers. Interestingly, this canned advertising was similar ad to ad, but might also contain modest changes.”
According to The Crooked Lake Review, a local history blog for New York State, “Warner had a great gift, a genuine talent for advertising. 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.”
Wikipedia continues the story, “Warner’s patent-medicine empire reached its pinnacle in the late 1880s and began its gradual decline. Flush with success, Warner spent money on highly speculative investments in mining, all of which failed. In an effort to generate more capital, he took the company public, which did generate some revenue.
He sold the company to an English investment group in 1889, which incorporated it as H. H. Warner & Co., Ltd. Warner bought up 80 percent of the English stock, and took the position of managing director of the company. However, Warner’s speculative investments and his waning interest in the business took its toll. When the Panic of 1893 hit, Warner was unable to generate additional capital through stock sales, forcing him into bankruptcy. The American branch of his company was sold to a group of Rochester investors, who continued to operate it as the Warner’s Safe Remedies Company.”
Michael W. Seeliger, author of H.H. Warner: His Company & His Bottles, provides the list of ingredients and Stephen Jackson adds some explanation for them, “Although Warner bragged that his Safe Kidney & Liver Cure was composed of rare herbs gathered from Europe and North and South America, the truth of the matter is that his formula was somewhat more commonplace.
- Extract lycopus virginiana 308 grains
- Extract liverwort 322 grains
- Extract wintergreen 7.5 grains
- Potassium nitrate 39 grains
- Alcohol (90%) 2.5 ounces
- Glycerin 10 drams
- Water sufficient to make 1 pint
First, lycopus virginiana is also known as Bugleweed and the plant is available from herbalists and is known to have medicinal qualities, including use as a sedative and for treating an overactive thyroid. The next ingredient, extract liverwort, also known as Hepatica americana, is also apparently endowed with herbal medicinal properties including as an astringent and diuretic. Apparently, large doses can produce symptoms of poisoning. Extract wintergreen or Gaultheria procumbens is also a diuretic and in small doses as a stomach stimulant. Large doses induce vomiting. Potassium nitrate, better known as salt peter is a component of fertilizer and fireworks, but its medicinal value is doubtful, except, as Seeliger notes, as a stomach irritant. Glycerin is a sweet-smelling emollient that is a byproduct of soap making. It apparently has the tendency to absorb moisture. The remaining ingredients of alcohol and water need no explanation. As Seeliger notes, alcohol is a kidney irritant as well as a depressant. It is safe to say that at least some of Warner’s customers were looking for little more than something to fortify their nerves. Whether these ingredients actually had some beneficial effect is difficult to say since the almanacs and pamphlets marketing Warner products were uniformly positive in their reviews.”