Within aromatherapy circles, increasing focus has been brought to bear on the issue of safety, based on the belief that essential oils for home or personal use is a relatively new idea – and previously were seldom used except by doctors or pharmacies. This is simply not true.
The term “aromatherapy” was first coined by René-Maurice Gattefossé and did not come into common use until after his book Aromathérapie was published in 1937. However, steam distillation of essential oils has been known for at least 5000 years, and the use of a variety of plants for medicinal and natural remedies, as well as other uses, has been handed down through many cultures, including America. The practice of using plants, herbs, botanicals for home remedies, and a number of essential oils, came to America with the earliest settlers and has persisted through the years, never being entirely forgotten. The very inclusion of most essential oils on the FDA’s GRAS list is based on substantial history of common use in food prior to January 1, 1958 as provided by CFR – Code of Federal Regulations Title 21 .
One of the most interesting in the history of essential oils in the U.S. is the story of peppermint. A member of the mint family, peppermint is a naturally occurring hybrid of spearmint and water mint, originating in North Africa and the Mediterranean area. It has a long history of cultivation and medicinal use, dating back to at least 1500 B.C. It was mentioned in Icelandic Pharmacopoeias as early as the 13th century, and listed in the London Pharmacopoeia by 1721. Peppermint was brought to the US by early settlers, and became common in Massachusetts where some of the earliest colonies were established.
In 1810, a peddler named Archibald Burnett from Ashfield, Massachusetts, set out by foot for New York with another peddler, each carrying a pack sack full of Yankee notions which they sold along their journey. Burnett settled upon the shores of Lake Canandaigua, the fourth largest of the Finger Lakes, and there remained until he received an urgent letter from his brother Nahum, urging him to return home as he had important news which could not be trusted to the mail. Archibald made the long walk home, a distance of some 275 miles. There he discovered that Nahum had been experimenting with distilling the peppermint that grew along the stream banks, and felt that if his brother would move back home and help him, they could make a considerable amount of money. Archibald had an even better idea. He felt sure the peppermint would grow even better on the rich flats of the Canandaigua Outlet, and there they would have no competition from other farmers distilling it, for at that time, the plant was not known outside of Massachusetts. Accordingly, Archibald set once more on the trek back to New York, this time with a pack of carefully nurtured peppermint stolons slung over his shoulder. Nahum sold his little farm and soon followed. In 1814, the brothers purchased 40 acres of land near South Lyons, where they set out the peppermint plants and erected the first crude distillery.
True to Archibald’s prediction, the peppermint plants did extremely well on the mucky flats near the lake, and so successful was their venture that many of their Ashfield neighbors also came to Lyons and began distilling peppermint, which was soon taken up by other farmers of Wayne County.
Meanwhile, Hiram G. Hotchkiss, the man destined to be America’s Peppermint King, was born on June 19, 1810 in Ontario County, New York to parents Leman and Theodosia Gilbert Hotckiss. He was just four years old when the Burnett brothers brought the first peppermint plants to Lyons, a small community of about 3500. His father, a merchant, had moved the family to Phelps, Ontario County where he opened the first General Store in town in partnership with David McNeill. Hotchkiss & McNeil became one of the most highly regarded mercantile firms in Western New York, doing brisk sales in excess of $100,000 per year, which was an enormous sum in those days. Hiram G. became a clerk in this store at 12 years of age and worked his way up. By the time he was 18, he opened his own General Store in Phelps in partnership with his brother Leman B., and cousin, William T. Hotchkiss, as well as successfully operating two mills. By 1828 he had begun buying peppermint oil from the Burnett brothers and other farmers, along with their wheat.
At that time peppermint oil was in common use as a home remedy for digestive, respiratory and other common ailments, but it was mostly imported from England. For a time, H. G., as he was known, sold the peppermint oil in his store. In 1833, he married Mary Williams Ashley, daughter of Dr. Robert Ashley of Lyons, and began to raise a family. Eventually they would have three sons and nine daughters. H. G. began to accumulate more of the peppermint oil than it was practical to sell in his store alone, and so founded his Hotchkiss Essential Oil Company in 1839. He tried to sell the peppermint oil in the New York markets. Adulteration of the oil was so common they refused to even look at his product. However, he knew his oil was pure and of excellent quality, so refusing to be discouraged, he rebottled the oil in cobalt blue bottles manufactured by the Ely Glass Company in nearby Clyde, and consigned it to London and Rotterdam Company in Hamburg, Germany. There the oil was promptly met with great favor, and tested and found to be the best and purest peppermint oil in the world. Ultimately it was sold back to the New York markets who had refused it before.
The Hotchkiss label of peppermint oil was soon widely recognized both for its purity and extreme potency. By 1844, H.G. moved his family to Lyons to be nearer the Erie Canal, which had been constructed in 1825, and was a main means of transporting the oils. Purchasing a large tract of land, he began cultivating peppermint in earnest, using horses to plow the land and harvesting the peppermint by scythe in the fall after blooming. It was said the canalers could smell the fragrance of peppermint wafting on the air as the neared the small town of Lyons. The New York Central Railroad was established in 1853, which surpassed the canal as a primary means of transport, but still the little town was favorably situated. The town of Lyons prospered and many of the local farmers who grew peppermint for Hotchkiss were able to pay their mortgages with it.
The geology of Wayne County has a curious history, being formed of parallel rows of elongated hills known as drumlins, which are said to occur in swarms. They were known to be caused by glaciation more than 12,000 years ago, when ice a mile thick had covered the area of western New York. The matter of exactly how they were formed was a topic of debate for more than a century and a half but was finally settled and explained in an article by retired geologist Fred Haynes. According to Haynes, it was found that the drumlins were islands of sediment rooted in bedrock, with the intervening regions washed out by rivers and streams from glaciers melting, and cutting deeply into the Paleozoic bedrock, making the contrast all the more dramatic. The receding glaciers were also responsible for the formation of the Finger Lakes in the region, and the rich fertile wetlands surrounding the lakes and often the areas between the drumlins. These were known as mucklands and proved to be ideal for the cultivation of peppermint.
The first year, H. G. began his peppermint oil business in only a small way, selling less than 1000 pounds of oil. After horses had plowed the land, it was carefully marked off into furrows about three feet apart. Workmen with sacks of roots began setting out the peppermint plants in sets placed thickly and then covered lightly. The plants took hold easily, and the dark green leaves contrasted handsomely with the delicate pink flowers which began appearing in late August.
When the peppermint was ready to be harvested, workmen came again to the fields, cutting the now two foot tall plants with scythes close to the root, and the harvest continued into September. The plants were piled into windrows and allowed to cure in the sun for 12 hours, so the oil would be more easily expressed. Then they were pitched off into the wooden distilling vats which consisted of heavy staves hooped with iron, where they were trodden down.
When the vats were filled with plant material, they would be covered, made steam tight with rubber packing, and fastened with screw clamps. Steam was then forced in by a pipe near the bottom of the vat, which connects to a steam boiler at thirty to forty pounds pressure. This was a method different from that used in Europe which applied fire directly to the still. The size of the vats corresponded to the amount of steam furnished by a boiler, but some of the vats described were four to five feet in diameter and twice as deep. Another pipe in the center of the vat cover connected the vat to a condensing worm, which again varied in size according to the capacity of the still, but would become progressively smaller toward the outlet.
The stills would be built so as to place the condensing worm directly in the stream so it would be cooled by a constant supply of cold running water. The volatized mint oil would mix with the steam in the condensing worm, and then was collected into the receiver where specific gravity would cause the oil to separate from the hydrosol water. The receiver would often consist of a tin vessel with a pipe running from the bottom nearly to the top of the vessel where it then turned outward, and the weight of the oil would cause the water from the lower part of the vessel to rise in this spout and drip out. Oil would then be dipped from the receiving vessel when a few pounds had accumulated.
First year crops were the best and purest. No cultivation was required in the second year, and in the third year, the ground would be plowed again, allowing the plants to spring up anew from the the broken roots.
After this, the land would be exhausted, and it was necessary to rotate with another crop, usually corn.
In 1846, H. G. discovered that the peppermint output of New York State at 44,500 pounds was triple that of competitors in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana combined. Eureopean demand, however, was only 12,000 pounds. Accordingly, H.G. paid growers in 1847 to sell him set amounts for two years and destroyed all of the surplus. This provided him with a temporary monopoly which allowed him to control the market and the quality, elevating peppermint oil prices. After he won prizes at the World’s Fair in London in 1851, and the New York World’s Fair in 1853, he bought only from New York growers to maintain quality. There were two distilleries, one near the plant and canal, and another on Pilgrimport Road. H. G. continually studied new methods to improve both the cultivation of the crops as well as distillation of the oil. He imported roots from England and developed the “Black Mint” variety, which yielded a greater quantity of oil.
H. G.’s unyielding standards for purity, honesty, and fair dealing reaped handsome returns, and by 1895, little more than half a century later, the business sold well more than 100,000 pounds of peppermint oil alone. The Hotchkiss Essential Oil Company, which by that time distilled many other oils as well as peppermint, was the most highly respected essential oil brand not only in the United States, but controlled more than 60 percent of the markets around the entire globe in the years following the Civil War.
The trademarked peppermint oil remained their most famous though, and by 1877 the Hotchkiss name was so valued that H.G. also registered a facsimile of his signature with the U.S. Patent Office. In 1878, H.G. visited Europe where he was very cordially welcomed and honored on the floor of the world renowned London Exchange for his outstanding brand of essential oils, an honor which had rarely been given to any American for any reason. H.G. won first prize medals for his brand of oils at seventeen World Fairs, including: London, 1853 and 1862; New York 1853; Paris 1856, 1867, and 1878; Hamburg, 1863; Vienna, Austria, 1873; Philadelphia, 1876; and Chicago, 1893, by which time H. G. was 83 years old.
During these years, not only was peppermint oil a common and widely used home remedy for both topical and internal use, it was valued for its use as a flavoring in many candies and other sweets, gum, toothpaste, and a variety of pharmaceutical and patented medicinal products.
Peppermint was regularly included in the early Pharmacopoeias, as well as The Dispensatory of the United States (1839). Numerous essential oils still commonly sold today, including peppermint, were listed in Merck’s 1907 Index. These generally called for actual pure distilled essential oils, and not synthetic versions. Many books of home remedies were published which attest to the fact that peppermint essential oil, the same essential oil that is widely sold today, was indeed well known and recognized for home use, and had been since the colonists first brought it to America. One such book was The Favorite Medical Receipt Book and Home Doctor, compiled by Josephus Goodenough, M.D. This book includes recipes from more than a hundred doctors and nurses for many common ailments that were often treated at home, as well as for things that could be done while waiting for a doctor. A very few others are Home Guide, Cure Without Drugs, by Dr. L.H. Kersey (1888), The Cottage Physician, for Individual and Home Use by George W. Post A.M., M.D. (1897), and Mother’s Remedies by Dr.T. J. Ritter (1910), which included more than a thousand home remedies used by mothers in the U.S. and Canada. An example from Mother’s Remedies using peppermint oil is the following: “Cramps in Stomach, Oil of Peppermint for.—Put a few drops of peppermint in a glass of warm water. Take a teaspoonful every few minutes until relieved.” This is an old time-tried remedy our grandmothers used to use and can be relied upon.”
Countless other such books were published, giving recipes for home remedies often using peppermint oil, and many other essential oils as well. This completely dispels the myth that essential oils were rarely used in America by ordinary individuals in their homes until recent years. It also shows that certain oils could be, and often were, taken by simply adding a few drops to water. Although the majority of oil produced would go to the pharmaceutical and flavor industries to be used in everything from chewing gum, toothpaste, sweets, various pharmaceutical and medicinal recipes for both topical and internal use, soaps, and more, personal use for home remedies remained a constant practice handed down through the years. Interestingly, peppermint oil was one of the active ingredients in the original formula for Listerine, developed by Joseph Lawrence in 1879. And it is still one of the active ingredients for the current reduced alcohol formula for Listerine developed by several noted scientists of the Warner Lambert Company in 1994, including Dr. Mike Buch, who is now the Chief Science Officer of Young Living Essential Oils.
Purity of the essential oils was as much a concern then as it is now. It was common at that time to adulterate peppermint with a number resinous substances, fixed oils, or alcohol. Inferior quality also was widespread due to lack of care in keeping the peppermint fields free of weeds. Sheep were often used for this purpose, as they would not touch the peppermint plants unless they were kept in these fields for years and became accustomed to the strong taste. It was H.G.’s stringent attention to these details which made the quality of his peppermint oil so much in demand. During the peak years of operation, H.G. packaged the oil in signature 21 ounce cobalt blue glass bottles, bearing the slogan he coined, ““One 21 ounce bottle of Peppermint Oil will give the correct flavor to a ton of candy.” Each bottle was hand wrapped in a facsimile of the first certificate won by H.G. at the 1851 London World Exhibition, and bearing the signature of Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria.
In 1894, the original plant built by H.G. burned, but he continued to manage and operate his peppermint business, which had come to be called the Hotchkiss International Prize Medal Essential Oil Company, until his death October 27, 1897. The business then passed to his sons, Calvin, who died in 1925, and Hiram, who died in 1926. After H. G.’s death however, increasing numbers of farmers in Wayne County began to give up cultivating peppermint in favor of more profitable crops. Also, another Peppermint King was rising to stardom in Michigan. We shall hear more of his story later.
Nevertheless, the Hotchkiss company continued, faithfully maintaining H.G.’s standards, and the name was so well known in Europe they continued to retain many of the old customers. In 1926, upon the death of his father, the third Hiram G took over his grandfather’s business and continued till his death at 83 in 1963, when his daughter Anne Dickinson Hotchkiss became the company president. Anne continued to run the company until 1982, and having no family member to leave it to, sold it to William Leman Company, a competitor who grew and distilled peppermint in Indiana, famous for their gourmet mints first created in 1939.
The original peppermint office which H.G. rented from the Leach brothers when he came to Lyons in 1841, became the museum. This was placed on the National Historic Register in 1988, and is managed by the nonprofit Lyons Heritage Society which offers tours of the historic building during the summer months, and maintains a gift shop (where bottles of the famous peppermint oil may still be purchased) to help raise funds for its upkeep.
The Leman company continued to produce the Hotchkiss oils until 2003 when the formulation and rights were purchased by Essex Laboratories, founded in Salem, Oregon in 1992. Anne Hotchkiss continued to take pride in the history of the Hotchkiss peppermint oil until her death in 2010 at 95 years of age. Essex continues to produce Hotchkiss peppermint according to H.G.’s original specifications, making it the oldest trademarked oil in America.
Next we will look at Albert May Todd, The Peppermint King of Kalamazoo, the young chemist and politician who sought to claim that his oil was the best and purest, and his company the world leader. .
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