And the Wind Says…Ypsalveo

November 1, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

ypsalveo2Ypsilanti is the nation’s birthplace of the Automatic Toast-Butterer, the breakfast cereal Wheat Hearts, and an improvement in stilts. All of these received patents. Though they may not have survived to the present day, they speak to the personality of their inventors and to an age of fervent experimentation.

One tiny item, so humble it never received an official patent, can be added to the wide range of inventions, agricultural implements, milling parts, paper, boxes, underwear, and other products once made in the city.

The item’s birthplace was the turn-of-the-century drugstore that once occupied the present-day space of the Rocket novelty store, on the southwest corner of Michigan Avenue and Huron.

David Morford and William Hyzer ran the City Drugstore. Hyzer had begun work there as a clerk after graduating Ypsilanti High School in 1881. David rented a room from a downtown family. Hyzer had married Mary Corkins two years earlier and lived at 417 Adams. In 1892, David was 26 and Hyzer 29.

That year, City Drug Store was one of five drugstores in the downtown area. The shops had different specialties. City Drug Store stocked drugs, perfumes, wallpaper, paint brushes, and varnishes. Another of the druggists, Fred Davis, stocked a wide range of patent medicines. He offered for sale such concoctions as “Johnson’s Magnetic Oil,” the “Japanese Pile Cure,” and “Dr. E. C. West’s Nerve and Brain Treatment.” It was a golden age of patent medicines, soon to come to an end under the Pure Food laws of 1906.

The other downtown druggists included Frank Smith, C. W. Rogers, and E. R. Beal. The five stores had a rotating agreement to cover Sundays. Only one shop stayed open all day. Cards in the other stores’ windows directed shoppers to the open shop, in case patrons desired a health-giving quaff of Sulphur Bitters, perhaps in the privacy of the backyard privy, on the Lord’s Day.

ypsalveoAs well as cooperating, of course the five shops were in competition. In 1892 David and William dreamed up a new product that seemed to fill a niche and offer a panacea for winter weather. The partners mixed ingredients (using a recipe now lost to history) in the back of their shop. Finally they found the right combination. This new product, they hoped, would bring streams of new customers to the City Drug Store. David and William packed their creation into containers for sale, stocked it in their shop, and took out a large ad in the Ypsilanti Commercial.

The miracle product was Ypsalveo.

Likely pronounced “Ip-SAL-vee-oh,” the substance was a lip balm that also could be used as a skin cream. “YPSALVEO is very healing and softening,” says a November 11, 1892 Ypsilanti Commercial advertisement, “for use on lips, hands, and face. Will cure chapped lips and cold sores, or any irritation of the skin. Price 25 cents per box [$6 today].”

fred-david1The ad was a large one, right next to fellow druggist Fred Davis’s even larger one advertising his dubious nostrums. The Ypsalveo ad continued to run for several more weeks, as David and William kept manufacturing the balm.

Ypsalveo could have joined the ranks of Atlantis mineral water or Ypsilanti Underwear as a famous city product. It’s conceivable that even today, instead of Chapstick and hand cream, Ypsalveo could have become a common household product. (Possible jingle: “For tender skin and lips aglow/Apply and try Ypsalveo!”)

But in a few weeks the Ypsalveo ads vanished from the pages of the Commercial.

Then a strange event in the shop seemed to presage disaster. In the summer of 1896, David and William found two partially burned boxes of matches in their shop. The partners “are congratulating themselves on a narrow escape from a conflagration,” said the August 10 issue of American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record. “They now devote their leisure time to speculating on the possible way in which the matches became ignited.”

Unfortunately, with the failure of Ypsalveo, the two had perhaps more leisure time than they needed. The days of the City Drugstore were near their end.

In 1896, Morford signed up to serve in the Spanish-American War. Joining Company G of the First Infantry, he was promoted to corporal, and reenlisted. He earned the ranks of sergeant, second lieutenant, and was honorably discharged as captain in 1901. He did not return to the drugstore.

Also in 1901, William sold his interest in the store to Hillsdale druggist F. A. Hodges. Hyzer soon moved with his wife Mary to York Township in western Washtenaw.

After his return from military service, the 35-year-old David rented a room in the Hamilton Street home of 45-year-old town grocer John Lamb, who lived there with his 35-year-old wife Minnie, his 54-year-old sister Jane, and his 6-year-old son Charles. David found a job as an insurance agent. The dream of owning his own store was gone.

The insurance agent job didn’t last. By 1903, David was working as a traveling salesman. He lost that job as well. Two years later, he was working as a common laborer, one of the lowest-status jobs then available. As a sign of the racism of the times, it was one of the very few jobs, along with barber, sign-painter, railroad worker, and junkman, that black men in the city could hold.

David then disappears from available records. Not even his death seems to be locally recorded.

The only apparent memorial to David and his ambitions, a humble one, is hidden: in a November Ypsilanti Commercial Ypsalveo ad, shrunken to a tiny size, halfway through a roll of microfilm stacked alongside other rolls in one drawer of one cabinet in the microfilm area on the third floor of Halle Library.

Ypsalveo!

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales of the Ypsilanti Archives.” Have an old-time story to share? Contact her at ypsidixit@gmail.com.

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