Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Watkins Man

He was an itinerant, or traveling, salesman at the juncture of the 19th and 20th centuries in America. With his wagon decorated with the famous company name and information, and his team of horses festooned with fancy trappings that included his own first initials and last name along their flanks, he drove from town to town in rural, central Indiana around 1910.

The company was no snake oil brand, and its peddlers were most likely held in the same regard as the Wells Fargo Wagons of the mid-to-late 1800s or the Fuller Brush men of the early 1900s. The J.R. Watkins Medical Company wagons went from farm to farm and house to house selling a product line that included medicinal salves, rose water perfume, flavoring extracts and spices, and vegetable oil soap with a slogan of “Just pure soap, that’s all,” and “Pure enough to eat!”

The company was founded in 1868 and was an immediate success based on Mr. Watkins’ Red Liniment Oil for aching and sore muscles. Watkins was also the first to offer a money-back guarantee and his “trial mark” bottles were easily recognized.

The sober young man in the picture is posed in front of his wagon while his team of horses stands at the ready. It must have been difficult work, being out in the elements and traveling slowly over rough country roads. We don’t know exactly when – or why – he started his work as a “Watkins Man” nor do we know how long he did it but we do know that it was one of the many jobs Franklin E. Springer undertook as a young man in rural Indiana.