Thursday, July 18, 2019

The “Sporty Days” Simons of St. Louis

Long before the advent of Viagra and Levitra, in the 19th and early 20th Century remedies for “male weakness” (i.e., erectile disfunction) abounded in the marketplace.  Among the most popular was “The Sporty Days Invigorator,” a nostrum that originated not from a pharmaceutical company but a St. Louis liquor house run by a family named Simon.  After passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, their invigorator would bring them into direct conflict with government authorities. 

The Simons’ chief antagonist was Dr. Harvey Washington Wylie (1844-1930), a physician who in 1882 became chief chemist in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  Shown here, the doctor was a crusader for passage of a pure food and drug law and instrumental in its approval by Congress in 1906.  Known as the “Father of the Pure Food and Drug Act,” Wylie and his Chemistry Bureau became the initial enforcers of the legislation.  

Dr. Wylie immediately took special aim at certain egregiously fraudulent patent medicines, such as “cures” for cancer and narcotics addiction, and eventually was successful in eliminating them.  Another particular objective of Wylie was suppressing nostrums that promised increased male sexual vigor.  They proliferated on the national market, often using provocative advertising, such as the dancing woman on the Sporty Days Invigorator pocket mirror above.

Other Simons’ advertising for their enhancer was even more suggestive.  The liquor house featured a postcard on which a winking cherub is holding a pair of female bloomers, with the caption:  “A pair of lace curtains for sister’s sitting room.”  The clear inference here is that the “youthful feelings” generated by Sporty Days Invigorator has allowed the user not only to work his will but to claim the lady’s undergarment as a trophy.   

Wylie might have made the Simons a specific target because of brazen advertising on its billhead that featured the Sporty Days Invigorator and then included the rampant falsehood:  “All goods guaranteed under national pure food law.”  Dr. Wylie was known to be particularly outraged by such statements.   Accordingly, in November 1908 his Bureau of Chemistry seized a shipment of the Sporty Days Invigorator and subjected it to testing.

The initial version of the law did not allow the government to judge a product on efficacy but only to prosecute for failure to list ingredients on the label.  Sporty Days Invigorator was absolutely silent on its make-up:  “…The label on said bottle did not declare the amount of alcohol contained therein, nor that said product contained any alcohol.”  The chemists found that the male enhancer exceeded 35% alcohol, almost the strength of straight gin.

Hauled into Federal District Court for Eastern Missouri in May 1910, the Simons pleaded guilty, were convicted, and fined $50 and costs.  This was the usual ploy of nostrum proprietors, most of whom were reluctant to engage in a court battle.  Fines were relatively modest and a guilty plea avoided negative publicity.  Wylie and his Bureau, however, were not finished with the Simons.   Less than three months after the Missouri verdict authorities in Texas seized two drums, each containing 200 bottles of Sporty Days Invigorator. 

This time the federal charge was the Simons’ failure accurately to list the ingredients.  The amount of alcohol listed was wrong, the authorities claimed, as was accounting for other ingredients, including sugar and flavorings.  This time Wylie indictment went further:  Sporty Days Invigorator “had no aphrodisiac properties, was not a cure for disease, and had none of the properties claimed for it” on the label.  The fine was $400 [equivalent today of almost $9,000] and court costs, with a proviso that the shipment would be destroyed if payment was delayed beyond six months.

Although the verdict was a setback, the Simons’ primary business was selling whiskey, not medicine.  The liquor company was formed in St. Louis about 1878 by Jacob Simon, birthplace unknown, when he was 36 years old.  By this time he was married to Sallie Bakrow Simon and was the father of one son, Julian.  Two more boys, Ira and Herbert, would follow.  My assumption is that Jacob had been working in Louisville’s brisk whiskey trade for some years and decided to strike out on his own.  He called his liquor store J. Simon & Co., located at 118 West Main Street.

Almost from the outset, Jacob called himself a distiller, claiming the Ashton Distillery Co. (RD#442, 5th District) located about twelve miles north of Bardstown, Kentucky, as his property.  While the record is fuzzy on that ownership, the Simons continued to identify themselves as proprietors throughout their company life. Shown here are two back-of-the-bar bottles advertising “Old Ashton Sour Mash” whiskey, a brand name they did not trademark.

As his sons matured, Jacob took them into his business.  Julian the eldest came on board about 1900 and the liquor house became J. Simon & Son.  Within several years, first Ira and then Herbert joined the firm, subsequently known as J. Simon & Sons.  At the time of the struggles with Dr. Wylie and the FDA, all four Simons were listed on company letterheads.  In January 1910  Jacob died.  He was buried in New Mount Sinai Cemetery and Mausoleum in Affton, Missouri.

The sons continued on with the family liquor trade, working under the original name.  They continued to use the “Ashton" brand as well as “Old Timbrook” and “Dairy Maid.”  Like many liquor houses of the time, they issued advertising shot glasses for their brands, as shown here.  With the coming of National Prohibition they were forced to shut down the business inherited from their father.  When each of them died years later their bodies were laid to rest with Jacob in a plot marked by the Simon name.

Despite the many years since The Sporty Days Invigorator disappeared from the market,  a quick search of the Internet reveals a variety of non-prescription substances currently being sold as “male enhancers.”  Some things apparently never change.  Dr. Wylie must be turning over in his grave. 

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