According to the Minneapolis Historic Building Survey, “The LaVoris Company was founded in 1902 by Charles E. Leigh and William H. Levings. Leigh was a druggist at 7th Street and Nicollet Avenue. Lavoris originated the mouthwash which became the firm’s principal product. From humble beginnings in one room at the Masonic Temple (at 5th and Hennepin), the firm grew to become one of the largest manufacturing chemists’ in the industry. The Lavoris Company was acquired by the Vicks Company in 1961.”
While many web sources repeat the claim that “LaVoris was first used as an antiseptic in the Civil War” this seems quite unlikely. Firstly because the widespread introduction of antiseptic surgical methods was initiated in 1867 by Joseph Lister, with the publication of the paper Antiseptic Principle of the Practice of Surgery, two years after the Civil War had ended. Physicians may not have used antiseptics during surgery, but some antiseptics were used for treatment of wounds, and some letters and publications acknowledge the value of iodine and bromine. However, the patented ingredient in Lavoris mouthwash is Zantrate, and I can find no mention of it, or Lavoris for that matter, any earlier than 1901, when the company begins marketing itself as a mouthwash. And the Civil War is not mentioned in any of the original company’s advertising. It seems unlikely that Lavoris even existed during Civil War, much less that it was used as an antiseptic.
Lavoris has not received the same historical attention as its competitor Listerine, which has had whole books and hundreds of articles written about its namesake Joseph Lister and its founders Jordan Wheat Lambert and Dr. Joseph Lawrence, and its notable advertising. Compared with Listerine, Lavoris little more than primary historical sources, brief notices in books or magazines from the period, even among bottle collecting websites, which is surprising considering the product was widely available for more than a century and is still on sale today.
It appears that William H. Levings was an executive of a natural gas company in Minneapolis and Charles E. Leigh was a druggist and also a judge in Minneapolis’ fourth ward. They founded the company and Leigh filed for the patent for the name and logo of Lavoris in 1901. The initial notice also includes the name Weed Munro, though his name doesn’t appear in any other mentions of the company.
The company made claims that their mouthwash “combines in an elegant manner the drugs of well recognized therapeutic value” and that “It’s advertising in medical and drug journals has never contained false statements, not even exaggerated ones.”
However the Lavoris company did come under investigation for false statements and exaggerated claims and a full analysis of the Lavoris product was done by scientists. They found that, if a consumer follows the Lavoris directions to dilute the product, the resulting liquid would not provide much antiseptic properties, as a mouthwash or for any other purpose. Other uses recommend by Lavoris included vaginal douching, washing inflamed eyes, preventing scarlet fever and treating gonorrhea, and the scientists dismissed them all. “The use of Lavoris as recommended would not only prove valueless in many instances but might lead to serious consequences because really valuable methods of prevention or treatment might be neglected.” I can only imagine what putting cinnamon mouthwash in your eyes might feel like, diluted or not.