Kemp’s Balsam, Le Roy, New York

Kemp’s Balsam was a cough medicine that was successfully marketed by Orator Frank Woodward, a business man in Le Roy, New York. After the small success of his own inventions, Woodward bought the rights to several patent medicines from their inventors and marketed them under the Genesee Pure Food Company name, including Kemp’s Balsam, Lane’s Tea, Lane’s Cold Tablets, Kemp’s Laxatives, Sherman’s Head Ache Remedy and Raccoon Corn Plasters. He made his fortune after acquiring the rights to Jell-O from inventor Pearle Bixby Wait in 1899, and it is for Jell-O that Orator Woodward is now famous.

Bottle embossed: KEMPS BALSAM

According to New York Historic “Orator Frank Woodward was born in the small town of Bergen, Genesee County, on July 26, 1856. He worked as a stable boy and courier, and at the age of 13 began dabbling with inventions. His first success was a lice-killing nest egg for chicken coops. It was a somewhat popular product within Genesee County. Around the age of 30, he started working with patent medicines, a popular trade at the time. His business was moderately successful for over a decade, but really took off when his Grain-O drink became the company’s first national hit. Grain-O was marketed as an alternative to coffee and tea. It was made by soaking a mix of roasted grains in boiling water. Orator married Cora Talmage in 1882, and had 5 children.”

Lynne Belluscio of the LeRoy Historical Society writes, in 1883, 27-year-old Orator Woodward (1856–1906) “bought the formula for Kemp’s Balsam and began manufacturing patent medicines in a couple of rooms over the F.T. Wilcox Store on Main Street, [in Le Roy, New York]. In 1891 he moved his operations further down Main Street to the Kavanaugh block and bought the rights to Lane’s Tea, Lane’s Cold Tablets, Kemp’s Laxatives, Sherman’s Head Ache Remedy and Raccoon Corn Plasters. Woodward sold his medicines from horse-drawn wagons and at least one, if not more, were manufactured by the famous Abbot-Downing Company of Concord, New Hampshire.”

Lynne Belluscio states “Through shrewd advertising and a hardy corps of traveling salesmen, Woodward became a wealthy businessman in Le Roy. His salesmen traveled extensively, and Woodward sent them out on some of the finest horse drawn wagons manufactured by the Abbot – Downing Coach Company from Concord, New Hampshire.  One of the Kemp and Lane wagons is pictured in Charles Fox’s book “Working Horses.” Since the wagon is number 35, it is assumed that Woodward had quite a fleet of medicine wagons on the road. These specialized wagons were built with compartments, sliding trays and cubbyholes. Every available space had a hinged door. The roof had railings to hold bulky merchandise.”

The eponymous Woodward Memorial Library of Le Roy, New York, writes “In 1899, Orator paid Pearl B. Wait $450 for the Jell-O formula, and a year later the product first appeared under the Genesee Pure Food Company label.  Two years later, sales of Jell-O amounted to $250,000.  Orator did not live long to enjoy his fortune.  He suffered a slight stroke, his condition deteriorated, and he died in January 1906.  He was 49 years old.”

Lynne Belluscio writes, “Eventually his eldest son [Ernest Woodward] controlled the Jell-O Company and his youngest son, Donald, in 1920, bought the O.F. Woodward Medicine Business and reorganized it under the name of Kemp and Lane. Eventually, Donald built a new factory on North Street, opposite the tracks from the Jell-O factory.”

In 1925, Woodward’s heirs sold Jell-O to Postum (which later became General Foods, and then Kraft) for $67 million, according to Allie Rowbottom, one of Woodward’s heirs. Rowbottom contends that the Woodward Jell-O fortune her family inherited carried a curse that killed the men and damaged the women. “When she was a little girl, growing up in the shadow of the Jell-O fortune, she’d been told that the family curse affected only men. “All of us,” her cousin John told her, “All the Woodward men are doomed—we rarely live past forty.” John’s father had died young on the heels of his own father’s mysterious death. John’s uncle Frank had also died early, plummeting from the open window of a hotel room, his white bathrobe spread around him where he landed like a broken-winged dove. The curse wasn’t confined to men, she told me from her hospital bed, it came from them, from a social structure predicated on their power. The curse was the silence impressed upon her, her mother before her, and countless women before them. The curse was the silence sold to women by men like Ernest Woodward and Bill Cosby, by products like Jell-O, by America itself.”

The chemical composition of Kemp’s Balsam is described by Lynne Belluscio as

“34 gallons of water
200 pounds of sugar
56 gallons of glucose
2 ounces of tar emetic (a powerful emetic that is used to induce vomiting).
8 ounces of oil of tar (a pulmonary and intestinal antiseptic)
6 quarts of chloroform (used as an anesthetic to reduce pain)
2 quarts of squills (small medicinal plants with blue flowers)
2 quarts of hydrocyanic acid (known as Prussic Acid, it is a very potent poison)
5 pounds of sodium salicylate, (pain suppressant, related to acetylsalicylic acid in aspirin)
In 1917, the recipe included 1 ½ quarts of caramel – as if more sugar would cover up the prussic acid and the oil of tar and chloroform!”

Orator Woodward marketed Kemp’s Balsam as superior to all other brands, which justified the higher price. He intimated that unscrupulous druggists might redirect Kemp’s loyal customers to buy cheaper cough remedies where there might be a greater profit for the druggist, and he implored his customers to accept no substitutions. This rightfully angered the druggists, who didn’t appreciated having their integrity questioned.

Excerpt from The Pharmaceutical Era, Volume 38, November 21, 1907

Lanes Cold Tablets & Kemp’s Balsam Wagon

From Tornado Newspaper December 15, 1890

Booklet cover, 1905

Booklet Interior, 1905

Booklet Interior, 1905

Booklet Interior, 1905

From The Bryan Times, Bryan, Ohio – Aug 14, 1906

Advertising card, date unknown.

Advertising card, date unknown.

Lane’s Tea Lane’s Cold Tablets & Kemp’s Balsam, Ink Blotter, date unknown

Advertisement, 1927

Kemp’s Balsam ad, 1940s

1946 Jello Ad ~ Orator F. Woodward ~ LeRoy, NY

About Jessica

I am the supervisor of the analysis of the archaeological collection recovered from the Old Main excavation.
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