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J.R. Watkins Medical Company

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Minnesota Historical Society Press
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J.R. Watkins Company, Winona

J.R. Watkins Company, Winona. Administration building in foreground, c.1945.

"If not fully satisfied, your money cheerfully refunded." We take statements like this for granted today, but when twenty-eight-year-old entrepreneur Joseph Ray (J.R.) Watkins of Plainview, Minnesota, put that message on a bottle of his Red Liniment, he was a trailblazer. In 1869, a year after Watkins first sold his patented combination of Asian camphor and red pepper extract, he bottled it in patented Trial Mark bottles, which showed how much of a product could be used before returned for a refund.

The secret to Watkins's success lay not only in his money-back guarantee but also in his sales force, a well-trained, highly motivated bunch that sold his products door-to-door. In 1885, the rapidly expanding company moved its headquarters to Winona, Minnesota. Ten years later, the company expanded its line of natural remedies to include gourmet cooking items: vanilla extract, black pepper, and cinnamon. In 1913, Watkins went international by opening a branch office in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and within two years, it had become the world's largest direct-sales company.

By 1940, Watkins's 10,000 sales associates—more than those employed by the better-known Fuller Brush Company—were offering 200 products, including vitamins, herbal remedies, and a range of baking goods. In 1978, multimillionaire businessman Irwin Jacobs bought the company from the Watkins family. In the early twenty-first century, Jacobs's son Mark was president of Watkins, Inc., and sales were good. And what of J.R. Watkins's Red Liniment? It was still available, through the company's website as well as from sales representatives. It was still sold in a Trial Mark bottle.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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Serres, Chris, "Winona's Watkins Takes Leap from Door to Store." Minneapolis Star Tribune, December 19, 2005.

Related Images

J.R. Watkins Company, Winona
J.R. Watkins Company, Winona
Replica of the old J.R. Watkins Wagons
Replica of the old J.R. Watkins Wagons
Vanilla extract bottle
Vanilla extract bottle
Thomas Brown, salesman for Watkins Company of Winona
Thomas Brown, salesman for Watkins Company of Winona
William McAdam, salesman for Watkins' Remedies of Winona
William McAdam, salesman for Watkins' Remedies of Winona
C.A. Lawrence, Watkins' Remedies salesman
C.A. Lawrence, Watkins' Remedies salesman
A.W. Jesperson, salesman for Watkins' Remedies of Minneapolis
A.W. Jesperson, salesman for Watkins' Remedies of Minneapolis
J.E. Schroggins, salesman for Watkins' Remedies of Red Wing
J.E. Schroggins, salesman for Watkins' Remedies of Red Wing
Red pepper canister
Red pepper canister
Ginger spice canister
Ginger spice canister
Watkins Building, Winona
Watkins Building, Winona
Bird's-eye view of J.R. Watkins Company
Bird's-eye view of J.R. Watkins Company
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Packaging Watkins Coconut Oil Shampoo, Winona
Interior view of the Watkins plant in Winona
Interior view of the Watkins plant in Winona
J.R. Watkins Company, Winona
J.R. Watkins Company, Winona

Turning Point

In 1885, J.R. Watkins Company moves from Plainview, Minnesota, to Winona, where easy access to both rail and water shipping lines allows the business to grow.

Chronology

1869
Joseph Ray (J.R.) Watkins bottles his patented combination of Asian camphor and red pepper extract in patented Trial Mark bottles.
1885
J.R. Watkins Medical Company moves its headquarters from Plainview, Minnesota, to Winona.
1913
J.R. Watkins Medical Company goes international, opening a branch office in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
1940
The company's 10,000 sales associates are offering 200 products, including vitamins, herbal remedies, and a range of baking goods.
1978
Multimillionaire businessman Irwin Jacobs buys J.R. Watkins Medical Company from the Watkins family.