Wilson Chemical Company

February 16, 1985 marked the end of an era in Tyrone, when after more than ninety years of operations, the Wilson Chemical Company closed its doors. Best known as the producer of “White Cloverine brand salve,” the Wilson Chemical Company was a prime example of how a specialties maker could defy most of the accepted canons of business and still succeed. While its methods of doing business, its managerial setup, its belief in the integrity of the individual salesman, and its employment practices seem foreign in today’s business environment, the company’s founder and his successors built an empire on such philosophies.

CloverineThe beginning of the company dates back to the late nineteenth century, when Dr. James Thompson Wilson, a prominent Tyrone physician, developed the formula for White Cloverine brand salve. Originally, Dr. Wilson made the product using his kitchen stove to heat and mix the necessary ingredients. In 1895, his son, George C. Wilson Sr., founded the Wilson Chemical Company and began manufacturing the salve.

Having limited funds to market the salve on a large-scale basis, George developed a unique method of merchandising the product and became a true innovator in his field. He decided to place small advertisements in various small-town newspapers and magazines to distribute his product. The idea caught on almost immediately. In fact, the company became the first premium house to use comic books to market its products.

An “agent” would receive twelve boxes of salve with twelve pictures. The agent would sell the salve for twenty-five cents to the customer, who also would receive a picture (usually a 9×11 four-color lithograph) with the product. Many such pictures could not be obtained elsewhere because they were privately owned by the company, or it had exclusive publication rights to them. The practice of providing pictures with the salve was continued until the late 1960s when the cost of providing the pictures free to customers became too high. (Visit our gallery of Wilson prints.)

In exchange for selling the products, agents were given the option of receiving a cash commission or returning all monies collected In exchange for premiums offered by the company. An overwhelming majority of the agents chose the commissions. The more salve sold, the higher the commission or premium earned. Additional premiums were granted for remitting prompt payment for the salve. A key factor in the firm’s ability to market its product through the use of premiums was the quality of premiums offered by the company. While competitors using such a strategy would typically send inferior premiums to their agents, the Wilson Chemical Company sent top-quality premiums such as watches, air rifles, cameras, or bicycles. George C. Wilson III, company president from 1952 to 1985 often told the story of the enterprising junior merchandiser who earned not one, but six Shetland ponies! The more valuable premiums were kept in a locked shed within the plant. This commitment to its representatives enabled the company to develop a network of more than 300,000 agents, sixty percent of whom were children, mostly between the ages of eight and fourteen. The practice of providing premiums to its agents would remain with the company throughout its history.

Using such strategies, the company grew quickly and attracted competition. When a competitor copied the formula for the salve, George Wilson sued on grounds of patent infringement. Wilson won the suit but sold a variation of the formula to the competitor for $4,500 and used the funds to build the company’s first plant — a two-story, wooden structure on the side of Brush Mountain on a site that was to become known as Cloverine Terrace.

A fire on March 4, 1916 completely destroyed the main building. Undaunted, the company continued on. By 1919, the company erected its new facility, a mammoth structure that one writer described in this manner: “This beautiful castle-like, native red-stone building, with walls twenty inches thick, stands out like a fortress as strong as the Rock of Gibraltar at the foot of a 400-acre mountain tract.” The plant stood adjacent to the Tyrone railroad station, where thousands of train passengers saw the company’s trademark — a giant Cloverine salve can proclaiming the home of the product. Wilson Chemical used this plant until 1970, when it was purchased by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and demolished to make way for the Tyrone bypass of U.S. Route 220.

The salve earned the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, a highly regarded seal earned after stringent testing at the magazine’s laboratory. Due to the high success of Cloverine brand salve, the company gradually expanded its product lines, diversified operations, and began to manufacture a number of additional products.

Eventually, the Wilson Chemical Company was manufacturing a wide array of products. Some of the more notable products included Cloverine dental cream, Cloverine soap, Cloverine mentho-balm, Cloverine talcum powder, Alo-Pine liniment, and Cloverine cold cream. While the company would eventually expand its line to include more than twenty products, Cloverine brand salve always would remain the staple of the firm, accounting for approximately sixty-five percent of total sales.

In 1926, the company started the Junior Food Products Company, manufacturers of Jack and Jill flavored-gelatin dessert. In 1928, the Wilson Products Company began producing Wilson’s cough drops. The family also owned a line of movie theaters throughout the Blair-Cambria region.

The growth of the industry was to aid in the development of Tyrone itself. The mail-order business had increased so dramatically that by 1916, the Wilson Chemical Company was responsible for more than $100,000 of the $118,000 total business done by the post office in Tyrone — an amount larger than the total receipts at the Altoona post office during the same period. During the rush season, the operation would have four or five postal clerks working in the plant. Mail was stamped or weighed and sent directly from the factory to the train. The typical day’s output of mail from the plant at that time ranged between seventy-five and a hundred sacks of mail. Such continuous large volumes of mail enabled Tyrone to receive designation as a first-class post office, have a new post office built, and obtain home mail-delivery for its citizens free of charge.

During the peak selling season (September through April), the plant employed approximately 125 people. About one-fourth of the employees had worked for the company at least twenty-five years. Several spin-off jobs also were created to fill the plant’s material-handling and distribution needs. Typically, the company used more than twenty boxcar loads of tin boxes for Cloverine salve and another thirty boxcar loads of materials, supplies, and premiums in a single year.

Upon the untimely death of George Wilson Jr. in 1951, George C. Wilson III became president of the company at age twenty. George proved up to the task of successfulIy running a large organization at such a young age. At age twenty-six, he was elected the youngest president of the Young Presidents’ Organization, an association consisting of companies with more than 100 employees and revenues of more than $1 million annually, and under his leadership, the firm was active in various community activities. He operated as president of operations until the company was sold in 1985.

The salve, still made using its original formula, is produced in Dobbs Ferry, New York. It is distributed by Medtech Laboratories Inc. in Cody, Wyoming, and is sold primarily through mail-order catalogs and drug outlets.