About two weeks ago I did a ride from the riverfront to around Downtown West, into Midtown, and then poked into the Central West End around the old Gaslight Square area. I always feel I miss some interesting stuff on Locust and areas between 18th Street and Jefferson so I spent a lot of time here on a Saturday afternoon rolling around on my bike. This area was big into manufacturing and along Locust there are many hints to it’s importance to the commercial printing/publishing industry and the automotive history in St. Louis. In addition lots of stuff was made around here but I’m going to focus on a corner important to the pharmaceutical industry. In fact it’s part of a historic district called the Lucas Avenue Industrial Historic District because of it’s manufacturing. Locust forms the south edge. Locust is also part of another historic district called the Locust Street Automotive District.
I only want to focus on The Lambert Building (aka the Singer Fixture Company or the T.M Sayman Products Company Building) because there is so much information on it.
The Lambert Building is a hulking Richardson Romanesque red sandstone building built in 1891. It is the birthplace of Listerine Mouthwash which was invented by a chemist named Joseph Lawrence in 1879. He named it “Listerine” in to honor Joseph Lister, a pioneer of antiseptic surgery. Lawrence then licensed his formula to a local pharmacist named Jordan Wheat Lambert in 1881. Lambert, in turn, founded the Lambert Pharmacal Company. In 1895 Listerine was promoted to dentists for oral care. Then in 1914 it became the first over-the-counter mouthwash sold in the United States.
Later in 1955, Lambert merged his company with New York-based Warner-Hudnut and became Warner-Lambert Pharmaceutical Company. Their headquarters moved to New Jersey. Then in 2000, Pfizer bought them out. In St. Louis, most people will recognize the name “Lambert” because of Lambert – St. Louis International Airport. However, the airport is not named after Jordan Wheat Lambert, it is named after his son, Albert Bond Lambert, who was a golfer that competed in the 1900 and 1904 Olympics. After his Olympic years he was an early proponent of aviation. In 1907 he was one of the founders of the Aero Club of St. Louis. At that time he was flying hot-air balloons. Then in 1909, Lambert met the Wright Brothers, and purchased his first airplane from them. Soon after he took flying lessons from Orville Wright. Then in 1911 became the first St. Louis resident to hold a pilot’s license.
Later he bought Kinloch Field, which had been used for hot-air ballooning. There he made improvements by building runways, hangars and all the things needed for an airport and called it Lambert Field. He also did it with his own money. Then in 1927 Lambert was one of backers/financers to Charles Lindbergh’s purchasing the The Spirit of St. Louis and making his historic solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean. The following year he sold his airport to the city of St Louis, thus making it one of the first municipal airports in the USA. Oh and he sold for the same amount he paid for it, and making improvements. Essentially he sold it at a loss.
It’s easy to say Listerine made the family tremendously wealthy. The development of a mouthwash essentially funded part of America’s early involvement in the aviation industry. Just to think this is the corner where it started.
After Lambert Pharmacal Company moved out, it became the home to Sayman Products, another pharmaceutical company. They then chiseled their name above the door so it’s hard to know by looking from the street, that this was where Listerine was produced.
T.M Sayman, the founder of Sayman Products Company, seems like an interesting fellow. He was born in 1853 in Indiana and ran away from home at age 9 and by 10 he joined the circus. After a couple years he worked for P.T. Barnum’s Circus, touring with them for a couple years. Later he joined other circuses, vaudeville acts, and groups that sold medicines across the country. How does a circus, vaudeville performer sell medicine? Well, it sounds to me like he was involved with “snake oil” salesmen of the day. The idea was to sell medicine through means of entertaining a crowd first and then selling the medicine after the crowd had gathered and they were in a happy frame of mind. It seems to me a circus and vaudeville performer could do this well. He became interested in the “medicines” and found most were worthless but found some to be useful. By age of 18, he entered medical college and studied medicine for four years.
After his medical studies he founded Sayman Products Company in Carthage, Missouri. He was interested in certain Indian herbs and became interested in what was called the soap plant. After a couple of years of trial and error, he learned how to make an effective extract where he combines these herbs and soap with other materials to produce Sayman Vegetable Wonder Soap. Soon after he developed Sayman Salve and other remedies for common ailments. Still sounds snake oily to me. I bet he was a good salesman, one that could talk you in circles and get you to buy anything.
By 1912 he was a multi-millionaire and moved his operation to St. Louis. After moving to St. Louis he expanded his operations with the manufacture of soaps, toiletries, household preparations, salves and related items that were distributed nationally. He also became a philanthropist in the city.
On top of that he seemed like an eccentric person who like to challenge people to headbutting. He would challenge people to butt heads with him and liked to do it on a bet. What? I guess it was something learned in the circus? He also passed out pistols to all his employees and collected them at the end of their shifts. A fully-equipped shooting gallery was maintained at the plant. He specified that applicants must be proficient with rifles and revolvers to work at his plant. Wha-what and why?
Anyway, Sayman Products Company moved out in 1975 and was replaced by the Singer Fixture Company. In 1976 a huge fire swept through and destroyed many nearby buildings and heavily damaged this one and Swift Printing Company across the street. The ruins from this fire seemed to be attractive to movie director John Carpenter were then used in his 1981 movie, Escape From New York. In fact, features from this building, and the old Swift Printing building can be seen in the movie. Today, both have been fixed up. In 1991 the Swift Printing Building became The Schlafly Tap Room and is still going strong. The Lambert Building was rehabbed and is now home to offices and lofts.
I was going to write about the Swift Printing Company Building and the Mendenhall Building but the history of this one cool corner at 21st and Locust was more interesting than I thought it would be. What an interesting place! I had a feeling or could sense and importance to this place as I passed on my bike. To me, if a name is inscribed into stone on a building, it has be be important. I do wish I did take more pictures because all I have is the one of the corner entrance. Sounds like another assignment.