Dr. Baker's Grape Cure

In 1990 the National Museum of American History was given a splendid collection of early papers from the Kelsey Company of Meriden, Connecticut. Digging in those records, and in Glover Snow's unpublished company history (which is in in a private collection in Meriden), has brought to light some odd facts about William Kelsey, the inventor of the Excelsior press.

ILLIAM KELSEY was born in 1851 and raised in Meriden. He died in Washington D.C. in 1935, the victim of a street car accident.

In 1871 guns and silver were the two principal manufacturing industries of Meriden. Kelsey, aged twenty, was working as the editor to American Sportsman, the house magazine of Parker Brothers, gun manufacturers. As a boy he had owned Novelty, Lowe and Cottage presses -- three small presses that were made for tradesmen to do their own printing, but had become popular with boys too. This was just at the beginning of a craze for amateur printing, and young Kelsey recognised that. He thought he could make a better, cheaper press than was on the market. He worked out drawings and patterns with the help of friends at Parker's, particularly one Gamaliel Snow, and in 1872 he advertised his press for $5. The response was magnificent. Kelsey's first batch of advertisements cost him $200, and he estimated his profit at $7,000.

The only trouble was that he had not really tested the press before he advertised it. The press didn't work.

Kelsey's style of business

From the only images we have of that original press, it would seem that once the bed and platen were closed and drawn down into the frame of the press, there was no leverage left for pressure. Anyway, Kelsey hastily redrew, patterned and cast a completely different press -- this one of his own design -- and he offered it for $6 in a new catalogue. He sold some 800 presses his first year, most of them for $5, but whether they were the unworkable model or the first good press, one cannot say. So far as I know, no examples of that first press survive -- if, indeed, they were ever distributed.

Kelsey's presses were made for him on contract by E. M. Lockwood until 1878, when Lockwood died, and Kelsey bought the shop. Lockwood had a sideline of a lawnmower sharpening business, and it was said that for some years lawnmowers were stacked up every spring, awaiting their turn on the machines.

Kelsey's style of business was hard-nosed. He was unsentimental about his Excelsior presses, which he saw as the bait for the real money-making part of the business: cards, ink, type and other printing supplies. He said later that he would have dumped the press immediately, if it had failed to show a profit. One might question that statement, though. His successor claimed that there were times when the company was only floating on Kelsey's private funds.

Kelsey became sensitive about the word "hobbyist," and even "amateur," which were the kiss of death to any manufacturer who wanted to deal with trade printers too. He was untrained in advertising, and while his campaigns were bold and brilliant, it took him years to realise that if he keyed his advertisements, he would know which were working best ("Dept. Y.A." for the Young America advertisements, for example). He made short work of competition, buying out James Cook, Joseph Watson (maker of the Young America), and Benjamin Woods (Novelty). And he crowed about his successes: "Dead. Competitors of this establishment do not seem to prosper," he wrote in his catalogue in 1890, after swallowing Woods' Novelty company. He could also be nasty:

It having come to our notice that J. Cook (and Co), envious of the business success of our establishment, and aping its mode of business, has endeavored to steal some of our customers by offering certain articles, purporting to be put up like ours, at a price less than ours. Lest some be misled we give notice that We Will Fill Orders For Anything This Party Offers, Or Ever May Offer Or Advertise, At Five Per Cent Less Than His Prices... We make this offer because of the despicable character of the competition we propose to Kill. Healthy competition we welcome, but the other kind we mean to Fight till a different course is adopted than aping our plans Entirely. (Connecticut Advertiser, May 1877)

James Cook had been Kelsey's landlord before starting his own press business: perhaps that explains the personal tone in the notice. But Joseph Watson, an independent maker of some very good small presses (such as the Young America), was also treated roughly. Watson came on hard times and sold out to Kelsey. He was allowed to buy back his shop some years later, but on terms that did not allow him to use his own name, which Kelsey now owned.

Kelsey could be soft hearted towards children -- and adults -- who were learning printing. A young man called S. E. Judson was working in the Post Office in Washington D.C. when he found a Kelsey circular on the dead letter table. Judson wanted to buy a press but couldn't afford it, and wrote asking for special terms -- a loan of $10, in fact -- because, as he said, a clerk with a family and a low rate of salary does not have much margin. Across the letter, Kelsey wrote "Send."


Part 2By the age of forty Kelsey was on the way to being a very rich man...

Part 3Dr Baker's Grape Cure, made and bottled at the Kelsey Press Company plant...

Part 4"Mildly poisonous, emetic, cathartic, or purgative -- but not enough to do any harm..."

AboutElizabeth Harris...

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