Friday, July 5, 2024

Peter Van Schaack Was Chicago’s “Old Salamander”

In Greek mythology a lizard-like amphibian, the salamander, could live in fire and flourish.   Having experienced three conflagrations including the Great Chicago Fire, Peter Van Schaack and his drug and liquor business became known as “The Old Salamander,” a title he eagerly embraced.  In truth, much of Van Schaack’ s life involved surviving in the face of adversity.

Van Shaack was born in May 1832 in Manlius, New York, a bucolic town amid the rolling hills of Onondaga County east of Syracuse.  He was the fourth son of Peter and Louise Smith Van Shaack, affluent parents able to give their sons good educations.  Disappointment came early to young Peter.  Attracted to the medical profession, he left home as a youth to live with an uncle, Dr. Lucas Van Shaack, one of New York’s most eminent doctors, to study with him to become a physician.  When his uncle unexpectedly died, Peter was forced to give up the pursuit of a medical career and went to work in an Albany wholesale drug house.  

After two years there, the rugged winter climate of New York State appeared to affect his health.  Having sufficient resources, Van Shaack gave up his job and visited the warmer West Indies, an addiction to travel that would become a lifelong obsession.  Deciding to give up New York for warmer climes, Van Schaack gravitated to Charleston, South Carolina, about 1859 where he founded his own wholesale drug house.  Although that enterprise seemingly was successful, when the Civil War broke out two years later, with Charleston as the epicenter, Van Schaack was forced to make a choice.  Opt for the Confederacy or leave.

Choosing the Union cause, he made a quick decision to abandon his enterprise in Charleston and return to New York.  His drug house was confiscated and he lost what has been described as “the accumulation of years.”  With his remaining resources, Van Schaack made the first of at least ten extensive tours of Europe before settling back to business.  This time he chose Chicago for his wholesale drug house.  The Windy City would be his home for the rest of his life.

During those intervening years, Van Schaack and his business came to be known as “The Old Salamander,” the result of surviving three devastating fires and each time coming back strong.  I have been able to document only one of those conflagrations, that of the Great Chicago Fire of October 1871. The fire began in a neighborhood of southwest Chicago and spread rapidly to destroy much of the central city. 


Shown here at No. 30 is the location of Van Schaak’s wholesale drug company two blocks within the fire zone at 138-140 Lake Street.  The scene above, looking from the Chicago River, captures the ferocity of the flames that consumed his wholesale drug company.  As a biographer explained:  “Mr. Van Schaack has had the misfortune to be entirely burnt out three times, on [no] occasion having the fire originate in his own store…By energy, pluck and untiring perseverance, was enabled to re-establish himself on a firmer basis than before.”

As a result of those recoveries, fellow businessmen and Chicago citizens alike began to refer to Van Schaack, as “The Old Salamander,” harking back to the ancient legend.  The man himself eagerly embraced the acclimation as an emblem of his ability to bounce back from adversity stronger than ever.  The nickname became part of his advertising efforts, appearing on informational brochures and his letterhead.

In the meantime Van Schaack married.  In 1853 when she was 20 years old and he was 21, Peter wed Louise Smith of New York City.  Over the next decade the couple would have four sons,  John, born in 1858; Henry, 1860; Robert, 1862, and Cornelius, 1863.  The father eventually would house this family in a comfortable frame house at 617 Linden Avenue in Chicago.  Shown here, the house still stands.

As they matured all four boys would assist their father in his fire-beset wholesale drug emporium.  It included vigorous merchandising of his products, including Van Schaack’s proprietary brand of liquor, advertised as “The Famous Rialto Whiskey” and represented below with a back-of-the bar bottle.  The proprietor registered the name with the U.S. Patent Office in 1891.  As shown by the ceramic jug here he also appears to have sold spirits blended in his quarters

under his own name.

Van Shaack’s company became known in Chicago and the
 Midwest for his annual catalogue of many pages advertising its wares.  Customers were allowed just one and may have eagerly paged through each edition seeking the imaginative illustrations Van Schaack provided.  Perhaps the company’s best known illustration was one for sponges.  Shown below, it has been reproduced frequently through the years, appearing on T-shirts and caps.

Chicago Orphan's Asylum

“The Old Salamander” also was an activist in his trade and in Chicago.  He served as first vice president of the National Wholesale Drug Assn., first vice president of the Central Drug Exchange and president of the Chicago, Drug, Paint and Oil Exchange.  He also served a term as a director of the Chicago Orphan Asylum and was a member of the Citizen’s Assn. of Chicago, a group that formed to secure the city against further disasters from fire.  It was responsible for laying the foundations of the water system and a modernized fire department.

Van Shaack also was kept busy on the home front.  His eldest son, John, had fallen in love with Florence Palmer, 17, one of four daughters of Captain Palmer of Covington, Kentucky, and reputedly the niece of Potter Palmer, a major Chicago land developer.  When Florence and John met at a social function in Chicago, the attraction was mutual.   Although his father objected to the marriage to Florence, presumably because of her age and erratic behavior, John married her anyway. The newlyweds moved to New York and had a son.  After seven years married, following an 1807 visit by John to his parents in Chicago, he failed to come home.  Florence told the press:  “I fear his father has influenced him to desert me.”

In a continuing saga that made headlines in Chicago and New York, Florence hired a well-known attorney and sued Van Schaack for $65,000 in damages for alienation of affection.  Tried in a New York court, the “Old Salamander” was found guilty and directed to hand over the $65,000.  Perhaps even worse from Van Schaack’s perspective, John, apparently out of concern for his own son, returned to Florence despite his father’s opposition.

As this “soap opera” marriage continued to attract press attention, Florence’s behavior became more bizarre.  She attempted an abortive stage career, then claimed that John was having an affair with an unnamed “countess” and that the other woman had attempted to poison her with a glass of champagne.  A police investigation labeled Florence’s charge “a dream.”  The couple divorced.  In April 1911, at the age of 53,  John died of an apparent heart attack while staying at a Washington, D.C. hotel.

None of his travails could curb Van Shaack’s zest for travel.  By 1894 he had taken ten voyages across the Atlantic.  With sons Robert and Cornelius to look after the business, he and Louise were free to enjoy extended trips to England and the Continent.   The Chicago Tribune reported:  “He has marked the progress of ocean travel from the thirty day trip to the seven day jump and anticipates crossing inside four days before he lays aside his traveling bag and spyglass.”

Van Schaack’s reputation as a wealthy American businessman opened doors for him abroad, among them that of William Gladstone, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Gladstone’s service spread over four non-consecutive terms beginning in 1868 and ending in 1894 — the most ever of any British prime minister.  The Van Schaacks appear to have encountered him not long after he had retired from politics and was living at his estate in Hardwarden, England.  

Gladstone invited the Van Schaacks to visit as Peter related to the Tribune upon the couple’s return to the U.S.. “He is rightly named the “Grand Old Man and while avoiding all references to politics or public matters, was brimming over with sociality,” said Van Schaack.  Gladstone showed the Van Schaacks a tree he had taken down a few days earlier that was being carved into keepsakes to be sold at a charitable fair by Mrs. Gladstone.  The Van Schaacks clearly had “arrived.”

Van Schaack, now approaching 70 continued to be listed as the head of the wholesale drug business he had founded and nurtured through three devastating  fires.  He died in December 1904.  After a private funeral in Chicago, his body was returned to his birthplace in New York for burial in the Manlius Village Cemetery. shown below.  Louise would join him there 13 years later.  In the meantime Peter’s sons guided the wholesale drug firm into the 20th Century.  The legacy of “The Old Salamander” lived on.

Note:  A wide variety of sources was employed to craft this vignette of Peter Van Schaack, among them stories in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune.  Another major contribution was a biographical article in the January, 1889, issue of “The Pharmaceutical Journal.”


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