Bromo Seltzer in the Cobalt Blue Bottle

Bromo Seltzer in the
     Cobalt Blue Bottle
By Ron Lesher

Most of us remember the over-the-counter medication Bromo Seltzer in the cobalt blue glass bottles. In fact the Emerson Drug Company’s headquarters in downtown Baltimore sported a rotating bottle in the shape and color of their product. The bottle was a prominent feature of the downtown skyline from 1911 when it was erected until 1936, when it was removed because of structural concerns. The tower building features a clock which, instead of numerals, uses the twelve letters of the product, BROMO SELTZER on its face. Although the bottle has disappeared, the headquarters clock tower still exists and now is home to artists’ studios.

Bromo Seltzer was a staple of the medicine cabinet at the turn of the century and it was one of the products that was one of the proprietary items of taxation of Schedule B of the War Revenue Act of 1898 that was enacted to pay for the the Spanish-American  War. Readers are familiar with the proprietary Battleship stamps that were issued to pay this tax (Scott RB20-32). Emerson Drug Company of Baltimore was one of the many firms that used the proprietary Battleship stamps

But the War Revenue Act of 1898, like its predecessor act for paying for the Civil War, also included a provision the private companies could use stamps that were designed to its own specifications. A number of firms in the 1898 period paid the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP) to create stamps to their own specifications. Hostetter’s Celebrated Stomach Bitters, which sported one of these private die  proprietary stamps in the Civil War era, requested a stamp within a few months of the passage of the 1898 act. They saw the marketing value of the stamp and had even been using a facsimile of the original stamp as part of the seal of their product after 1883, when their product was not subject to any federal taxes.I

Inexplicably, Emerson Drug Company persisted in the use of the proprietary Battleships for over two years before they requested their own private die proprietary stamps. The first deliveries were in November 1900. Four denominations were ordered: ¼ cent for a bottle that sold for ten cents; 5/8 cent for bottles that sold for 25 cents; 1 ¼ cents for a bottle retailing for 50 cents; and a 2 ½ cent stamp for a bottle selling for $1.00. The stamps are readily obtainable by collectors with even a modest stamp budget. For many years the Emerson Drug Company stamps have been touted as the fi nest example of engraving coming out of BEP. The design features the Bromo Seltzer bottle and the words on the label are easily read, if not by the naked eye, under low magnification. One could quite easily say that this was an early example of microprinting, which is an important anti-counterfeiting feature of our contemporary currency. The stamp separation is hyphen hole perforation 7, the same separation that was being used on the proprietary and documentary Battleship stamps.

While many collectors like to place mint stamps in their albums, so that the design is unencumbered by the cancellation, the used Emerson stamps feature a tasteful press printed cancellation featuring a sequence of a numeral, a letter and a numeral each separated by a period. This sequence represents the date of manufacture in code, which allowed the company to identify their product for quality control purposes. The collections of the late Morton Dean Joyce and Henry Tolman, who formed the greatest collections of revenue stamps in the twentieth century, featured extensive collections of the dated cancellations of the Emerson stamps.

The code has long been broken and can be understood by recognizing that the first numeral is the day of the week. Monday was assigned the number 1 and so forth with the number 6 assigned to Saturday. Living in the early part of the twentieth century, this is a reminder that a century ago there were six work days in the week.
The letter stands for the week of manufacture.

Twice a year the letters were used; twenty-six letters times two gives us the 52 weeks of the year. The final numeral is the key to the half year period. Emerson apparently had been using this code prior to the use of the proprietary stamps and the earliest uses of the private die stamps in November and December of 1898 feature the numeral 8, the last half year period in a four year sequence. Beginning in January, 1901, the numeral 1 was used, signaling the beginning of another eight semi-annual period.

The coded date on the used ¼ cent stamp (2.P.1) shown was used on a Tuesday in the week designated P in 1901. Consultation with a calendar for the year 1901 identifies this as Tuesday, April 16, 1901.

The great collections of the Emerson cancels included as many of the four denominations for each date that they could find, but even a single stamp for each known date is an enormous challenge. And that does not include the aberrations: the occasional omission of a period or a double period, the narrow and wide S, and the long and short tails on the letter R. These aberrations add spice to the calendar collection.

The assembling of such a calendar collection quickly reveals that there are very few cancels in February and none in March until the last week of that month. The company had already begun to run out of some denominations of the private die proprietary stamps in January. A combination of slowness on reordering and the BEP’s ability to print more of the stamps are reasonable conclusions for the gap in use of the private die proprietary stamps.

Adding the company’s cancellations of the proprietary Battleships during February and March of 1901 is another way to spice up the calendar collection. But what does this gap in the use of the private die stamps say about the Emerson Drug Company during the Spanish-American War era? The company was both slow to take advantage of the marketing power of the private die stamps and they apparently had little idea about how long the stamps would last. Apparently management was not a strong feature of the company during those years.