Chester Martin Remembers The Chattanooga Medicine Company

Wednesday, February 17, 2016 - by Chester Martin

It was a Godsend for all Chattanooga, and especially for the suburb of St. Elmo. Only un-married ladies were allowed to work there, and many widows or otherwise unattached ladies could not have survived without the "Medicine Company". My own grandmother was one of these, her husband - my grandfather - having died young at age 40. I grew up knowing a number of ladies who were totally dependent upon the "Medicine Company".

It was founded by a man who was wounded on Snodgrass Hill (where the stone tower is today),  during the Battle of Chickamauga; his name was Zeboim Cartter Patten, (known to his friends as "Zip").

While recuperating in Chattanooga he saw opportunities. Our city was destitute and needed all the help it could get. He therefore returned home to New York State briefly, before coming back here to stay.

His ingenuity led to the creation of four companies that survived over 100 years - all four of which I plainly remember. They were the Patten Hotel, Patten and Payne Office Supplies (known more recently as "T.H. Payne"), the Volunteer State Life Insurance Company, and the Chattanooga Medicine Company.

Although I have read an early account of how the business started, I have forgotten now just how their two principal products, Black-Draught (pronounced "Black Draft") and "Cardui" (pronounced "Car-dew-eye") were selected for production. Supposedly, British Navy personnel were obligated to take a nightly cup of water to which a black powder was added, and so it became known as a black draft. Think of it as a laxative if you had eaten bad food for dinner! And Cardui was for women's problems. Enough said.

Next, the idea was to sell it, and so a fleet of salesmen was hired to peddle it throughout the entire Southeast, moving out in horse-and-buggies in all directions from Chattanooga. Barn roofs advertised both products, much as Rock City was advertised in succeeding years.

The company prospered in spite of at least one lawsuit with the AMA (!) which threatened the life of the company - but good fortune smiled and the Medicine Company won!

One day, when their reputation of success had been established, there was a visitor who came to the door asking to see Mr. Patten (known to his friends as "Zip"). The visitor had a secret formula he wanted to discuss with Mr. Patten, but he was not in that day. Disgusted, and unwilling to wait for "Zip's" return, the visitor went away - to Atlanta. There he made contact with someone who took one look at the man's secret formula and bought it instantly: it was called "Coca-Cola"!

I heard that story directly from Mr. Alex Guerry, CEO of Chattem, Inc., whose great-grand-uncle was Z. Cartter Patten. We can only imagine how the life of Chattanooga might have been changed had Mr. Patten been around and possibly bought the man's formula! Fact is, though, that in those years the country was full of "secret formulas", "magic elixirs" and wonder-working "potions" which were supposed to cure everything from frostbite, to itch, to cancer! Chances are good that he would have rejected it simply because they already had some highly successful products. ("Kickapoo Joy Juice" of Li'l Abner Comic Strip fame, was a spoof on such elixirs and potions).

Chattanooga Medicine Company continued to thrive through the years and their product acquisitions grew to astounding proportions with nationally known brand names. They gradually let go of their original products - Black Draught and Cardui - as their older customers died off and younger people sought glitzier products. Black Draught and Cardui had been advertised on a yearly calendar which could be found in almost every Southern household, and I remember many years ago while touring a visitor's center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I saw a painting of a very old mountain woman seated inside her log cabin home. There, over her shoulder, was an accurate rendering of a Black Draught calendar! These calendars came with an accompanying almanac, similar in format to other such almanacs, most notably the "Old Farmer's". My mother demanded one of each every year until she died at age 88! Mom was definitely a "believer" in the Medicine Company products!

Before the computer age, and perhaps even before many offices had typewriters, notes were scribbled down by hand. To write a long name like "Chattanooga Medicine Company" took a bit of time, and probably did not help alleviate one's "writer's cramps", so the tendency was to abbreviate that long name by writing, "Chatt - M".  And there you see how the old Chattanooga Medicine Company morphed into being the modern, "Chatt-em". (Chattem, Inc., to be exact).

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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