Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Sprucelets: An Original Adirondack Medicine

Cold and flu season once again has sufferers scrambling for any kind of relief from all sorts of medicines. A little over a century ago, right here on Northern New York store shelves, next to cough drops by national companies like Smith Brothers and Luden’s, was a local product made in Malone.

Sprucelets were created mainly from a raw material harvested in the Adirondacks: spruce gum. Like hops, blueberries, and maple syrup, the seasonal gathering and sale of spruce gum boosted the incomes of thousands of North Country folks seeking to make a dollar any way they could. Much of what they picked was sold to national gum companies, but some was used locally by entrepreneurs who established small factories and created many jobs.

Among these was the Symonds & Allison Company of Malone, founded there in 1897 by Charles Symonds and Aaron Allison when the latter purchased half-interest in Symonds Brothers, a convenience-store operation offering food, coffee, candy, and tobacco products.

In late 1899, they branched out into making their own brand of sweets, including chocolates, caramels, hard candies, and stick candies. Within a month, four employees were turning out 500 pounds of product in a single day, and the company was barely keeping up with orders.

If you’ve ever worked in a candy factory or a pharmaceutical plant, you’re aware that the manufacturing of both products involves many shared processes, like mixing ingredients, drying, coating, etc. (For instance, similar steps are used to produce M&M candies and Advil tablets.)

Putting their knowledge of candy manufacturing to work, Symonds and Allison developed a new health-care product in late 1904 by refining pure Adirondack spruce gum — which reputedly held throat-soothing and even curative capabilities — and adding a few other ingredients.

By the time their trademark was approved on the last day of February 1905, Sprucelets were already selling well. Besides the local market, they were distributed in Brooklyn through pharmacist Ralph Channel, a Clinton County native who was raised in Malone and maintained close ties there.

Newspaper advertisements for Sprucelets were absent the wild claims made by many other medicines said to be the cure for everything from headaches and hot flashes to cancer. Sprucelets focused on cold-type symptoms and customers susceptible to certain throat issues.

Typical ad copy: “The beneficial effects of the spruce and balsams of the Adirondacks for all throat, bronchial, and lung troubles are well known, and we have used in the manufacture of Sprucelets, in a concentrated form, quite a percentage of Adirondack spruce gum. In connection with this we use other healing remedies, making it one of the most desirable cough drops on the market. They contain no opiates or coloring matter of any kind and nothing injurious to the stomach or system, being purely vegetable. These drops are harmless for children.

“They are especially beneficial for singers, public speakers, and anyone having an irritated throat. They are invaluable to smokers having dry and inflamed throat. Persons having irritation of the throat, which interferes with their rest at night, will find relief by allowing one of the drops to dissolve in the mouth, which will loosen the phlegm, relieve the throat, and insure a night’s rest. Price: five cents per box. For sale everywhere. Try them. Manufactured by Symonds and Allison Co., Malone, N.Y.”

The company aggressively marketed many products, and Sprucelets were no exception. During the 1905 county fair, theirs was among the most talked-about of the Floral Hall exhibits — a booth “trimmed with spruces and lighted by electric lights, with an electric flash sign revealing the word Sprucelets,” and free cough-drop samples available to all visitors. Weekly print advertisements ranged from promotional copy to sometimes just a simple line — “Sprucelets cure colds” — inserted nine or ten times on a single newspaper page.

In 1906, Roy Kirk and Verick Maher bought out Aaron Allison. Although Charles Symonds remained as president, the firm soon after became known as Kirk-Maher, and under that name the selling of Sprucelets continued. Allison, who owned the Canadian trademark for Sprucelets, rented a space in Montreal and made plans to begin manufacturing there.

Kirk-Maher, meanwhile, promoted and advertised Sprucelets south of the border. During the 1907 Fourth of July parade, the company float featured a replica spruce forest with snow on the ground. Besides availability in Brooklyn, the popular cough drops were also distributed by the Richardson Drug Company in Omaha, Nebraska. Many North Country apothecaries carried them as well, including W. T. Hinman in Potsdam, McNulty’s Drug Store in Norwood, and Cohn’s store in Faust at Tupper Lake.

In 1914, the Kirk-Maher Company was still running advertisements in regional newspapers, touting their well-known medicine as, “The Twentieth Century Cough Drops. Positively Stops That Tickle in Your Throat and Relieves Coughs, Colds, Throat and Bronchial Difficulties. An evolution in Cough Drop manufacture, palatable and efficient in its beneficial results. The latest scientific combination of pure extract of Adirondack Spruce Gum with menthol and other healing ingredients. At all dealers, 5 cents.”

Shortly after, however, Sprucelets virtually disappeared from the market. Kirk-Maher’s interests were varied, but their focus had turned to an ice cream venture that proved particularly lucrative, starting with a plant capable of producing 1,000 gallons per day. Within a decade they had manufacturing sites at Massena, Malone, Plattsburgh, Saranac Lake, and Watertown.

A resurgence of the locally famous cough drops came about in 1920 with the formation in Malone of the Smith Candy Company, which took over the Kirk-Maher operations (formerly Symonds & Allison) on West Main Street and, among other things, resumed producing Sprucelets. The company announced that an improved formula had been copyrighted, advertising was under way, and distribution had already been arranged with a firm in White River Junction, Vermont, and across New York State.

But there would be no repeating the dramatic success enjoyed by Symonds & Allison fifteen years earlier. The Smith Candy Company floundered, and just two years after opening for business, the proprietors filed for dissolution.

Unlike Sprucelets themselves, it was a tough pill to swallow. The company’s failure marked the end of an original, homegrown, homemade Adirondack product once used by thousands of happy customers.

Photos: Sprucelet trademark (1905); Advertisement (1914)

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

8 Responses

  1. Beth Rowland says:

    Great stuff, Larry—keep these pieces coming!

  2. Audrey Hyson says:

    What a cool story. Thank you for putting this together.

  3. Larry says:

    Thanks Beth and Audrey. Very much appreciated.

  4. terry V says:

    Love this kind of history

  5. Becky says:

    Does anyone know the ingredients of the original Sprucelets drops? I like making my own herbal medicinals, and while I don’t have ready access to spruce and balsam fir resin, I’d love to know what went into those curative creations!

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