J.R. Watkins

Joseph Ray (J.R.) Watkins (1840 – 1911)

Joseph Ray ("J.R.") Watkins (1840-1911)

Joseph Ray (“J.R.”) Watkins (1840-1911)

In 1868, the Civil War had just ended and was a recent memory to everyone at the time.  Andrew Johnson was President of the United States, taking over from Abraham Lincoln who was recently assassinated on April 14th, 1865.  The 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution is adopted July 28th guaranteeing African Americans full citizenship and all persons in the United States due process of law.  Memorial Day is observed in the United States for the first time on May 30th (it was proclaimed on May 5 by General John A. Logan).  Thomas Edison applies for his first patent, the electric vote recorder for use by legislative bodies such as Congress on October 28th and America was just 92 years young!

It was in that same year when Mr. Joseph Ray Watkins (J.R.), founded the J. R. Watkins Medical Company in Plainview, Minnesota, after moving from Cincinnati, Ohio.    The story begins in Harrison, Ohio, in the early 1850’s when Richard Ward concocted an all-purpose liniment which he sold to J.H. Sands in 1856. Sands moved to Winona, Minnesota Territory and sales were good.  Ward in 1867 also sold the “rights” to J.R. to compound and manufacture Dr. Richard Ward’s popular Vegetable Anodyne Liniment.  J.R. was just twenty-eight years old, then.  He would mix his liniment in the family kitchen, mixing such ingredients as camphor (from the Asian evergreen tree), extract of capsicum (from red peppers), oil of spruce and other botanicals in an invigorating alcohol based rub.  Together with red pepper extract, it works by stimulating nerve receptors that feel heat, masking the feeling of pain and relieving the discomfort of minor muscle pain, soreness and stiffness.

He would bottle it by hand in his wood shed and load his bottles into a market basket. With his newly acquired $500 Horse and Buggy, J.R. began the tradition of selling all natural products and would deliver his liniment door to door, traveling around the countryside.  But Watkins had a plan that would set him and his product above the “snake oil” salesmen peddling their panaceas on the prairie. His concept of “taking the market basket to the people”, was the motto behind the “Watkins Man”…  “J. R. Watkins Medical Company” is still inscribed on the face of Watkins headquarters building, as a constant reminder of Watkins roots in the health and nutrition fields. Medicinal products were the company’s specialty — liniments, salves and other home remedies.

Watkins-08The still famous Red Liniment was his first product and Watkins had grown from a one-man operation to one of the largest direct selling companies in the world today.

He was so confident in his product that he offered his customers the first ever money back guarantee.  J. R. Watkins believed in giving his customers honest value for their hard-earned money. A hard earned dollar for a bottle of his liniment was an investment that needed a guarantee of quality. J. R. had a special “Trial Mark” molded into the bottle, an innovative concept. He would leave the bottle with the customer upon payment and if the product had not been used past the mark by his next visit, the customer could get a full 100% refund of their purchase price.  And so the idea of the 100% satisfaction guarantee, was introduced to North America for the first time, by Mr. J.R. Watkins

Watkins moved 25 miles south in 1885, to Winona, Minnesota, a booming logging town on the banks of the Mississippi River. In 1895, Watkins entered the gourmet food market with vanilla, black pepper and cinnamon.  In 1901 their first advertising almanac was issued. The J. R. Watkins Medical Company bloomed like the wildflowers of the northern plain. Products were added to the line, some with strange and wondrous names: Petro-Carbo Salve, Gen-De-Can-Dra [a tonic bitters], Oriental Nerve Tonic, Cathartic Liver Pills, and Hindu Pain Oil. The products were born of home-style remedies and the ancient teachings of other cultures using herbs and botanicals often not available to people in the New World.

The following is from Watkins 1907 Almanac.

“Watkins’ Remedies Are Different.” “We do not pretend to know about medicines that are made and sold by other people… No doubt, some of them are good, but it is equally certain that a lot of them are worthless. And as sickness of any kind is a thing no one likes to tamper with, it is only natural that people hesitate to take any chances on getting the worthless kind… That is why more than a million of people all over North America have pinned their faith to Watkins Remedies and wouldn’t take any other kind if they could get them for nothing.”

The Watkins Administration Building in Winona, Minnesota

The Watkins Administration Building in Winona, Minnesota

Watkins corporate headquarters has been located in this beautiful office building near the banks of the Mississippi River. The Architecturally significant administration building was completed at a cost of $1.2 million in 1912. The building includes Italian tile and marble, Tiffany-style glass, and other exquisite details. When looking straight up from the building’s marble rotunda, visitors will see the free standing dome with 24-karat gold leaf. Designed by noted Prairie School architect George Washington Maher, Watkins Administration Building is part of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts’ multi-media collection.

J.R. Watkins died in Jamaica in 1911, three months after marrying his daughter’s mother-in-law, leaving a legacy of Quality Products with Value. Paul Watkins, his nephew, now became president. The business continued to flourish. The J. R. Watkins Company had more than 2,500 people selling his liniment door-to-door by this time. This is the first recorded Network Marketing endeavor and the pioneer to an entire industry.  

J.R.’s portrait still appears on the company’s product logo and packaging.

J.R.’s portrait still appears on the company’s product logo and packaging.

By 1920 the product line reached 100 selections. One of the most colorful offerings was the Egyptian Bouquet Talcum Powder. In 1922 Herb tablets (vitamins) were introduced; Watkins was well ahead of its time in realizing the benefits of vitamins. These “vitamins” supported the Watkins tradition of natural products, which continues today in the form of cutting-edge pharmacy grade, dietary supplements.  New Herbal supplements featured the tonic herbs of Watkins’ early “root” teas – mostly cleansing herbs like cascara and senna – in a convenient tablet form.  Cosmetics and household cleaning products were added to the product line in the 1920′s, making Watkins literally a, general store at the customer’s door. The Garda line of cosmetics and perfumes, and later the Mary King line in the 1940′s (named for J. R.’s granddaughter, Mariel King) were on the leading edge of quality in their day, and added a touch of elegance and romance to the life of every homemaker, making Watkins the first direct cosmetic line.

To showcase and promote his excellent connections for botanicals from the far corners of the earth and since his brokers were already in the area, Watkins decided to introduce his customers to a number of spices and extracts: vanilla from Mexico and Madagascar, cinnamon from southeast Asia, nutmeg from the East and West Indies, black pepper and Cochin ginger from the Malabar Coast of India and cloves from Zanzibar. All were of the most pristine quality available. The little experiment worked, and J. R.’s gourmet food products were in demand as much as his patent medicines. In fact, the company received one of the world’s highest culinary honors when its vanilla, black pepper, cinnamon and other ground spices received the Grand Prix with Gold Medal at the 1928 International Exposition in Paris.  The award sealed the company’s reputation for providing high-quality gourmet ingredients.

An entire line of Organic Spices filled the product category.  Things were taking off and by the 1940’s Watkins offered over 200 products and had grown to more than 10,000 sales associates covering the US & Canada.  During the war in 1942, ninety percent of Watkins production capacity was dedicated to the WWII allied effort. Products included Pure Dried Whole Eggs, Dessert Powder, Gelatin Desserts, Lemon Juice Powder, Orange Beverage Base Powder and Louse Powder & Insecticide Powder for Body Crawling Insects.

In 1955 Watkins first major national advertising campaign captures the imagination of a new generation of consumers. The ads appeared in magazines such as Better Homes and Gardens, the Saturday Evening Post, Ebony, Ladies Home Journal, Reader’s Digest, McCall’s, and Look. Watkins ads appeared in the 60’s live on NBC’s “Today” show hosted by Dave Garroway.

In 1978 ownership of the 110-year-old industry leading and innovative company was transferred from the Watkins family to Minneapolis entrepreneur Irwin Jacobs and his family and a new era begins.  Nearly twenty years later in1997 Mark Jacobs, son of the CEO Irwin, was named president.  Mark’s extensive Network Marketing background helped to refine and expand this legendary product line. Completing the journey from Liniment to Linimax and the return to home remedy/natural wellness products, Watkins Today is recognized as the benchmark that all others are compared to.

Watkins still offers Red Liniment, the first product, as well as 350+ products to make you feel better, live longer and preserve the well-being of our planet. And yes, even his Trial Mark Bottles still exist!!

Today, instead of the Watkins Man making horse and buggy deliveries, Watkins products are handled by more than 80,000 Independent Associates throughout the United States and Canada, with orders processed using state-of-the-art technology and promptly shipped for delivery direct to your home or business.  J. R.’s Watkins Red Liniment launched a company that has created careers for hundreds of thousands of Watkins men and women over the years and retain over 75% of their members yearly.

Today Watkins products still reflect J. R.’s philosophy – combining nature’s goodness and old-fashioned wisdom with the latest modern research and technology. Our food products have expanded to serve a wide range of tastes and cooking styles and as well as the demand for convenience in the modern age. Our personal care products offer the best in herbal research, with exclusive blends of skin-friendly botanicals; we even cross the bridge between body and mind with premium aromatherapy products.  Our all natural home care products are designed for lower environmental impact, so you get both a cleaner home and a cleaner world. Every product is made with the same care and attention to quality that J. R. insisted upon, and is backed by the 100% satisfaction guarantee.


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