Warner’s Safe Cures
March 18, 2014
Familiar to collectors of antique bottles, especially those for patent medicines, is the distinctive flask-shaped, amber-colored bottle for Warner’s Safe Kidney & Liver Cure (about 9 3/4’’ tall; see photo). Interestingly, given the word safe in its name, such bottles are embossed with the design of a strongbox, but we are getting ahead of an interesting story about a multiple-quack-medicine empire. Here it is—focusing in turn on each word of the company’s name, Warner’s Safe Cure Company.
H(ulbert) H(arrington) Warner (1842–1923) was a Rochester, New York, patent-medicine mogul. Having become wealthy in a previous business (discussed later), 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 [Taber’s 2001, 282]) 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 him for attempting to market a virtually identical “cure” (“Warner” 2014).
Warner had become a millionaire with his previous Rochester business. This was a company specializing in fire- and burglar-proof safes, the demand for which had burgeoned after oil was discovered in western Pennsylvania. However, he made millions with his next enterprise, selling patent medicines. The word safe in his business name not only provided a link to his previous success, but of course seemingly promised that the product could be taken without fear of harm—which, as we shall see, was untrue. The safe design—embossed on bottles and printed on labels pasted to their opposite side—was copyrighted and intended to help give his Warner’s Safe Cure products a recognizability that could not be easily imitated. (Interestingly, as collectors know, Warner’s Safe Kidney & Liver Cure bottles depict the safe’s hinges on the right; however, a variant bottle—with the safe hinged on the opposite side—is rarer and therefore more valuable) (“Antique” 2014).
The word cure on such early products was a sign of quackery. A Warner’s advertising booklet of 1892 (see second photo) states, “We do not cure everything from one bottle” (Warner’s had other products); however, its “Warner’s Safe Cure” (a short designation for its original kidney and liver nostrum) was recommended for a remarkable variety of conditions (p. 41): Bright’s disease, jaundice, lame back, impotency, dropsy, liver inflammation, “female complaints,” debility, and many more, including malaria! Among the company’s other products with such outrageous claims were Warner’s Safe Diabetes Cure and Warner’s Safe Rheumatic Cure. The Kidney and Liver Cure, at least, was “fraudulently” advertised, according to the American Medical Association (AMA), for its claim, for example, “that a pain in the back is a sure sign of Bright’s disease.”
With passage of the 1906 Food and Drug Act, Warner’s company was required to replace “Cure” with “Remedy,” but the AMA was not mollified. Noting that the Safe Kidney and Liver Cure contained herbal extracts, alcohol, glycerin, and potassium nitrate, the medical authorities observed that alcohol should be avoided in the case of kidney inflammations and that potassium was actually a kidney irritant! Not only would Warner’s Safe Remedy “not cure Bright’s disease but it may hasten the death of the sufferer who takes it” (Nostrums 1911–36, II: 208–211).
Warner’s Rochester business—begun in 1878—eventually reached around the world. From 1883 he opened branch offices in Toronto, London, Melbourne, Frankfurt, Pressburg (Hungary) Dunedin (New Zealand), and elsewhere. In addition to his Safe Cure products, he offered a tonic, a nervine (supposed to soothe the nerves), bitters, “Log Cabin Sarsaparilla,” and something simply named “Log Cabin Pills.” A millionaire several times over, Warner became a philanthropist, notably sponsoring a Rochester observatory which he named for himself. He also built a lavish mansion, but the Panic of 1893 sent his already declining business into a tailspin, and he was forced into bankruptcy. However, investors continued to operate the American branch as the Warner’s Safe Remedies Company into the 1940s (Fike 2006, 107, 211; “Warner” 2014). Warner’s 7-story business building (completed 1884) still stands, a monument to quackery.
Antique Warner’s safe bottles. 2014. Online at https://www.antiquebottles.com/warners/; accessed March 11, 2014.
Fike, Richard E. 2006. The Bottle Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Historic, Embossed Medicine Bottles. Caldwell, NJ: The Blackburn Press.
Nostrums and Quackery. 1911–36. In three vols. Chicago: American Medical Association.
Taber’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary. 2001. Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company.
“Warner, Hulbert Harrington.” 2014. Online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hulbert_Harrington_Warner; accessed March 11, 2014.