Tokens & Medals

Effervescent Remedy

Published July 2, 2024 | 4 min read

By David Schenkman

If you’ve ever spent time in downtown Baltimore, Maryland, you’ve probably seen the Emerson Tower. Construction of this impressive 15-story structure, often referred to as the Bromo-Seltzer Tower, was completed in 1911. Located at the corner of Eutaw and West Lombard Streets, it served as the headquarters and factory of the Emerson Drug Company, manufacturers of Bromo-Seltzer, a pain-relief tablet.

A distinctive feature of the building is the four large clocks on each side. BROMO-SELTZER is used in place of numerals. When the tower was built, it was topped with a mammoth 20-ton replica of a blue Bromo-Seltzer bottle, inside of which were more than 300 lights. The rotating bottle glowed blue and could be seen for many miles at night. It was removed in 1936 because of concerns about its structural integrity.

The Bromo-Seltzer tower was the tallest building in Baltimore from 1911 to 1923. The rotating blue bottle at the top was removed in 1936 because of structural concerns. 
Photo: Ben Swanson

Isaac Edward Emerson, who perfected the pain-relief formula for his tablets in the 1880s, was born on July 24, 1859, in Chatham County, North Carolina. He worked in a local drugstore as a University of North Carolina student. Following his graduation in 1879 with a degree in chemistry, he married Emily Dunn and moved to Annapolis, where he opened his first store in 1880. A year later, he relocated to Baltimore, and between 1884 and 1889 he opened three drugstores. During that time, he developed the product that would make him a very rich man. On May 21, 1889, he registered trademark No. 16,599 for Bromo-Seltzer.

A Guaranteed Cure

Emerson’s financial success was due in large part to the fact that he was a firm believer in advertising. He touted the benefits of his product not only in this country but also around the world. In addition to his newspaper and magazine promotions, he advertised on the radio extensively. The earliest ad I was able to locate appeared in the April 12, 1888, issue of The People’s Press, a Winston-Salem, North Carolina, newspaper. Emerson Drug Company placed a small ad offering a trial-size sample of his “guaranteed cure” for headaches for 10 cents by mail or “at all druggists.” The firm ran no other ads that year and only a smattering of them between 1889 and 1891. However, it started to increase its promotion efforts in 1892, and by the late 1890s Bromo-Seltzer had become a household name.  

In the article “Bromo-Seltzer in the Cobalt Blue Bottles” published online by the Society for Historical Archaeology, Bill Lockhart et al. state:

“Although most sources claim that Emerson incorporated the Emerson Drug Co. in 1891, the firm actually was a copartnership between Emerson and John F. Waggaman, begun on April 16, 1890. Waggaman was apparently the financial backer of the enterprise, and the partners soon built a factory in Baltimore…. The United States Patent Office recorded an assignment by Isaac Emerson to John F. Waggaman of Emerson’s interest in Bromo-Seltzer Patent No. 9660 D 90 on May 6, 1890. This would be consistent with the partnership date, but we have been unable to locate the actual patent document. Waggaman reportedly sold his share of the business to Emerson in 1905.”

Expansion Overseas

In 1894 Emerson opened a branch of his company in London. The Emerson Drug Company, Ltd. was located at 46 Holborn Viaduct. It issued an attractive 38mm aluminum medal featuring a lady’s head facing left in the center of the obverse. She is holding a small bottle in her outstretched right hand. CURES/ALL HEADACHES is on a band around her head. EMERSON’S BROMO-SELTZER is around the rim. The calendar on the reverse has the year 1895. H. GRUEBER & CO. 37. SNOW HILL. LONDON./PATENT encircles the year in small letters.

Emerson’s Bromo-Seltzer company issued this medal depicting a woman wearing a headband with “Cures All Headaches” on it. 
(Photos: David Schenkman)

The piece was struck in the shop of Henry Grueber, a well-known London die-sinker who, according to R.N.P. Hawkins in his classic work A Dictionary of Makers of British metallic tickets, checks, medalets, tallies, and counters 1788-1910, “revived annual issues of calendar medals.” I’ve seen several similar medals with calendars, all struck in aluminum between 1894 and 1914. Those issued after 1899 do not bear Grueber’s name because his business was purchased by the British Stamping Company, Ltd. that year, although Grueber continued to operate it.

Emerson advertised his product extensively in London newspapers. Between 1895 and 1897, the ads all featured the lady’s head that appears on the medal. A guarantee states:

“If three doses do not cure any headache, no matter how caused, send the bottle to us, saying where obtained, and we will at once refund the price.”

This is a seemingly contradictory statement. If it instantly cures headaches as stated, you shouldn’t need to take three doses.

Outside Interests

Bromo-Seltzer’s financial success enabled Emerson to enjoy his other interests, including sports and yachting. He entertained and traveled to many countries on his three yachts, which he also used for hunting excursions. In 1894 he organized the Maryland Naval Reserves, and he served as its commander for seven years. In addition, he financed a naval squadron during the Spanish-American War. He was commissioned a lieutenant in the navy and served as an assistant to the chief of the auxiliary naval force. In that capacity he assembled a fleet of vessels for coastal patrol.

Bromo-Seltzer’s financial success enabled Emerson to enjoy his other interests, including sports and yachting.

Following his election as captain of the Maryland Reserves, he assumed the title “Captain Emerson,” and for the rest of his life he was often referred to as “Captain Ike.” The “multi-millionaire chemical manufacturer and international yachting enthusiast” died on January 23, 1931, at his historic Baltimore County estate, Brooklandwood, following a two-month illness. A measure of Emerson’s fame can be found in the lengthy obituaries that were published by more than 200 newspapers nationwide.

Thanks to my good friend Dr. Ben Swanson who provided illustrations from his collection. I welcome readers’ comments. Write to me at P.O. Box 2866, La Plata, MD 20646. If a written reply is desired, please enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope.

A version of this article appears in the August 2024 issue of The Numismatist (