Sometimes, I think there would be less interest in fiction, if we only knew more local history. Perhaps I have just been spoiled by the stories that keep bubbling up — as if emanating from the floorboards — in one 1868 house in Newburgh, New York.
Prior owners called it The Fullerton Mansion, although it’s somewhat undersized for a mansion and the original owner, the once-famous trial lawyer Judge Fullerton, is long forgotten. (The same goes for his composer son; see “Lost Newburgh Composer Willie Fullerton”, New York History Blog, June 20, 2017.)
Even less known are the Cathcarts, who owned the house from the first decade of the 20th Century until the depths of the Great Depression.
In fact, I had completely neglected the early 20th century gap in the history of the house, until a new neighbor was researching her 1830ss home next door, and directed my attention to the name R. Harry Cathcart in an old census.
This is the story of the Cathcarts of 297 Grand Street, and their transitory moment of greatness.
Travails of a Patent Medicine King
Robert Henry (“Harry”) Cathcart (1854—1936) was an immigrant from Ulster Province, Ireland. Beginning in 1881, Newburgh was his base for patent medicine manufacturing and distribution. The principal entity was named The Kells Company, after his native village. Harry and his wife Ida purchased the showy home on Grand Street, shortly after the death of Judge Fullerton’s widow Cornelia in 1903. They may not have seen the storm that was coming.
The term patent ‘medicine’ conjures up associations with ‘snake oil salesmen’, but Harry’s concoctions were often alcohol-based, sometimes with additives like opium or cannabis, to ensure a child’s cough or an adult’s rheumatism was effectively suppressed. Of course, patent medicine was neither patented nor medicinal, but a triumph of marketing ingenuity in the days before consumer protection was engrafted onto America’s legal system.
In 1905, however, Collier’s Magazine published a series of articles entitled “The Great American Fraud”, which exposed the entire industry. Legislative action followed almost immediately, establishing a new bureau (predecessor to today’s FDA) within the Department of Agriculture to take action against fraudulent and misleading claims. A typical case was the 1912 regulatory ruling against a Cathcart affiliate for the marketing of Terraline, which was essentially petroleum and came in two varieties – plain and with heroin. The labeling was described in the judgment:
Petroleum Purificatum… Indicated in Phthisis, Coughs, Cold, Asthma, La Grippe, Hoarseness and All Diseases of the Throat and for General Debility…. Preferable to cod liver oil. In the croupy coughs of children, and in croup itself, it is prescribed with the greatest benefit.
The humorless regulators fined the company $25 for “false and fraudulent” claims, made “knowingly and in reckless disregard of their truth or falsity.”
It was a see-saw battle, as courts placed limitations on the scope of regulatory activity. A 1912 American Medical Association article fumed:
Dr. A.C. Hoxsie’s Croup Remedy was manufactured and distributed by the Kells Company, Newburgh, NY. The nostrum was sold under the claim that it would cure diphtheria and consumption, as well as croup, whooping cough, colds etc. As the [1906 Act] is now interpreted by the Supreme Court, it is impossible to limit such cruel and vicious falsehoods as these.
There was also the matter of public opprobrium. This is evident in the treatment of Harry’s flamboyant, namesake son, Harry Cathcart, Jr. (1884-1941). After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, Harry Jr. started a floral business in Newburgh. Headley’s 1908 History of Orange County provided this unmistakably sarcastic commentary: “The greenhouses of the Yuess Gardens Company have a glass roofage of some 35,000 square feet and are the most pretentious in Orange County.”
But it was Harry Jr.’s early attempts at marriage that became fodder for the newspapers. Alma Von Haake was a popular Washington, D.C. socialite, described as “dainty and vivacious, with a striking mass of chestnut hair.” Miss Von Haake had fallen love with a tall, handsome Annapolis midshipman, but it would be years before a naval ensign could support her properly. Perhaps under pressure from her parents) she married Harry Jr. in June 1907. A few months later, the new bride vanished at a Philadelphia train station. Ensign Earl W. Pritchard disappeared at the same time. When Harry, Jr. sued for divorce, the humiliation of the son of a patent medicine millionaire made for breakfast-table amusement across the country.
A second failure had a grimmer ending. Helen Hart Thompson was from a respectable Newburgh family who lived around the corner from the Cathcarts. She was in the process of divorcing her first husband, an Albany dentist. At what should have been the final court appearance, the Judge ascertained that Mrs. Thompson had already married Harry Cathcart, Jr. without waiting for the formality of a permanent decree. He refused to grant the divorce and turned the matter over to the authorities for prosecution on grounds of bigamy.
A few weeks later, Helen Thompson died at her parents’ home in Newburgh. The reported cause was gastritis.
A local Newburgh paper announced the death, but discreetly omitted any reference to the divorce proceeding or bigamy action. On the same day, however, The New York Times could not resist a lurid caption: “Death Halts Bigamy Action”. Coverage in the customarily staid Times was brief, but managed to remind the reader that Harry, Jr. was the son of a Newburgh patent medicine manufacturer, and that his first wife had run away with a naval ensign.
Harry’s older brother Oswald John Cathcart (1881-1961) stayed out of the limelight, and his 1910 marriage to Elsie Meyer (1889-1973) united two Newburgh manufacturing families. Elsie’s father and uncle were co-proprietors of the highly successful Washington Baking Powder Company, which took its cue from Newburgh’s Revolutionary War Headquarters site, which was then a much-visited tourist attraction. Martha Washington Baking Powder was especially popular. Her brother Edward Meyer is credited with creating the first snow plow in North America. (The Meyer Snow Plow Company is still in business today.
It seems plausible — even compelling — to suggest that, with such entrepreneurial roots, Elsie Meyer Cathcart had something to do with the next family business, albeit behind the scenes. A newly-independent-minded American woman was coming into being; and a new mass market arose to serve her. The Cathcart comeback would ride this wave.
The ‘Trade Notes’ column in the July 1914 issue of “The American Perfumer and Essential Oils Review”, contained the following:
Announcement is made of a combination of interests in the perfumery and toilet goods manufacturing trade whereby Lazell, Perfumer, established 1839… will control the output of The DeMeridor Company and The Samurai Company of Newburgh, NY, where Lazell, perfumer, have planned to erect a modern factory to take care of the products of all three.
The new entity was capitalized at $250,000; Harry Cathcart (Sr.) was listed as President with Oswald serving as Treasurer. Nearly a century later, a blog devoted to collecting vintage compacts provided a nostalgic look-back at Lazell’s magical moment as a pioneer in mass-marketing to the emerging American woman.
The blog’s author explains:
Although inexperienced in perfumery and cosmetics, the new owners of Lazell and DeMeridor… realized that they would be better off if they could offer a comprehensive range of perfume and cosmetics products….from 1916 onwards advertisements in women’s magazines for Lazell products offered…perfumes, face powders, soaps, talcum, soaps, talcum powders, toilet waters and, of course, their new greaseless face cream.
For a few brief years following the three-way merger, the delicately sensuous aesthetics of Lazell’s advertising captured an awakening sensibility among American women and their counterparts abroad. A 1920 Ladies Home Journal Ad for the “Cloth of Gold” product line seems especially evocative; with slender, minimally-clad figures reminiscent of artist Aubrey Beardsley’s daring 1890’s work, dancing fearlessly amid towering waves.
Oswald Cathcart eventually became President and Advertising Manager and probably deserves some credit for the free-spirited sensualism of the full-page ads that graced women’s magazines during the golden period. But it seems unlikely – even impossible – that there was no guidance or other input from his wife Elsie or the other Cathcart ladies. As is all-too- common, the record is silent on the role of the women.
There is certainly no sign of feminine influence in the surviving photographs of Lazell’s annual “festive” banquets held at the City Club and other locations in Newburgh. In a somewhat chilling example from the January 1917 issue of American Perfumer, a sea of dark-suited, grim-visaged men surround a formal T-shaped banquet table, with Harry Cathcart at the head, like a tribal chief, and no woman to disturb the stark uniformity of the all-male eco-system.
During this period, the compacts themselves became fashion accessories. As explained in another website aimed at collectors:
In the 1920s, la garçonne, or the young flapper woman of the Art Deco era, with her short hair and sleeveless dress, took to wearing heavy eye makeup….This…made it socially acceptable for a woman to primp in public, to take out a mirrored compact at the table and check her face or powder her nose.
Thanks to this public show, what are now regarded as vintage compacts became accessories in and themselves, beautifully decorated.
1922, Oswald Cathcart patented a popular innovation, the “Twinette”, with separate compartments for face powder and rouge (and more space for powder than for rouge).
As the market grew, however, once-pioneering Lazell faced a host of competitors, large and small. At the same time, the company failed to keep up with changing tastes, while the product quality declined. Their competitive edge was slipping well before the Great Depression put the entire industry under pressure. Great houses like Coty struggled, but Lazell went bankrupt.
In 1937, the home on Grand Street was sold by The National Bank of Newburgh for $ 1 plus the assumption of widowed Ida Cathcart’s defaulted mortgage. 297 Grand Street became the Walsh Funeral Home and its era of larger-than-life families was over.
A host of artifacts still attest to the Cathcart’s momentary greatness. The building that resulted from the three-way merger survived the urban renewal wrecking ball, and still stands at the corner of Renwick and Johnes Streets. The Yuess Gardens greenhouses have vanished, but there remains a floral business on the original location. The aesthetic sensibility of Harry Junior’s vast glasshouses is embodied in the lovely garden room that Harry Senior and Ida added to their Newburgh home (perhaps for one of their children’s weddings.)
Of course, the Lazell compacts are still collected, and the graceful ads can be found in vintage ladies magazines.
The final word, however, should belong to the 2011 Vintage Compact blogger, without whose own research, this article would not have been possible:
[Lazell’s] lasting legacy must surely be the images of its carefree, barefoot dancers celebrating their newly found freedom to express themselves without the fear of what society may think. For a few years Lazell captured this new spirit and deserves to be remembered for it.
Photos from above: Lazell ad, Ladies Home Journal 1917 (author’s personal collection); Alcohol and Cannabis, Kells Company, Newburgh NY (author’s personal collection); Oswald Cathcart-Elsie Meyer Wedding Party, in front of porch at 297 Grand St, (provided by Tim Cohen-Mitchell); Lazell Dinner (American Perfumer and Essential Oil Review); Lazell Twinette Compact (author’s collection;) Ladies Home Journal Ad, 1920 (author’s collection); and Garden room, 297 Grand Street (courtesy Deborah de Graffenreid Photography).