The treasures and the trash that we find in antique stores, flea markets, and antiquarian bookshops seldom have their histories intact. Recently I found myself holding the delicate, worn pages of a publication called The Herbalist Almanac, two copies of which were passed on to me by a friend who discovered them, encased in plastic, in a stack of old magazines at a Chicago flea market. Dated 1932 and 1941, they were given to me to unravel the story behind them.
Both feature artwork on the cover depicting a Native American brave holding out a plant to a chief sitting by a campfire. Inside, tiny print and old-fashioned line drawings fill the pages, which are yellowing, crumbling newsprint with occasional color plates of medicinal plant illustrations.
The booklets are packed with articles about herbs, native plants, common ailments, and traditional medicines, as well as excerpts from newspaper articles that reflect the early herb industry’s concern about credibility and its wrangling with the medical establishment. Charts include detailed month-by-month weather forecasts and advice on everything from the best fishing days to the luckiest days for pulling teeth, castrating livestock, harvesting tobacco, and weaning babies. The readership clearly was a rural one.
Many personal testimonials from readers on the efficacy of herbal treatments are tucked in as fillers among quaint ads hawking these products. “‘I am using your Peach Tree Leaves at 25¢ per box as a tonic and my hair sure is growing in new and coming in thick. My friends all even notice it.’ Writes Mrs. S. R., Evansville, Ind.”
I was intrigued because these charming booklets carry no name other than the imprint of a small, now-defunct herb business in South Holland, Illinois. Yet they are infused with someone’s personal dedication to herbs and herbal ways. It seemed a mystery to me that the author, clearly an opinionated and passionate man, had effaced himself so completely from their pages. Who was he?
My first clue was a tiny line on a page that I almost overlooked: the copyright, held by one Joseph E. Meyer.
The Herbalist Almanac, I was to learn, was started in 1925 and came out every year for more than fifty years. It was the work of not one man, but two: Meyer and, after about 1935, his son Clarence. It was a free publication offered by a company called the Indiana Botanic Gardens in Hobart, which was not a public garden at all, but the nation’s oldest seller of herb products. Founded in 1910 by Joseph Meyer, it’s still in business today. The almanac stopped publication in 1979.
The company began with an herbal laxative tea blend containing marshmallow root, licorice root, cascara sagrada, Jamaican gingerroot, and fennel seed, among other ingredients. This tea remained a cornerstone of the company’s business over the decades as it added more and more products to its line. By 1932, it was selling more than 1,000 varieties of dried leaves, seeds, roots, barks, flowers, and herbal combinations—almost everything priced at 25 cents a box. Customers could purchase herb plants and seed packets, as well as various ointments and cosmetics.
By 1941, the company had expanded into culinary herb blends, selling “aromatic botanicals for the kitchen” that would seem at home in today’s trendy gourmet kitchen stores—gravy herbs, curry powders, flavored vinegars, ketchup spices, and savory seed blends. By then it was also selling herb-related books, including a new one called Back to Eden by Jethro Kloss, which first appeared in 1939 and is still in print.
Perhaps the Meyers didn’t need to put their names on the almanacs because the men were well-known to customers and readers. In 1932, Joseph writes: “It has been my life work to investigate by direct personal study and inquiry to compare and to learn the best and most efficient of the herbs and roots used by more than a score of Indian Medicine Men whose friendship and confidence I have won.”
The Herbalist Almanac was not only a marketing tool for the sale of herb products, but also a soapbox. “You can save yourself much suffering and a great deal of money by turning your back to man-made dangerous and poisonous chemicals and going back to nature,” it states.
The booklets contain many such hints of dissatisfaction with the “progress” of conventional medicine and nostalgia for the good old days. One news article quotes a Dr. Griffith’s plea for a return to grandmother’s medicine chest and the accusation that physicians who relied on more modern vaccines and drugs had “neglected” sage, chamomile, boneset, and other botanicals that had stood the test of time.
During the Depression years, self-doctoring was a way of life. The Indiana almanacs contain treatment regimes for ailments ranging from baldness to bowel problems, as well as features on individual herbs of garden, field, and forest—not only the natives but even plants such as ma huang and yerba maté that must have seemed exotic. One story describes a man named Li Chung-Yun who, at the age of 252, had outlived twenty-three wives and was then living in China with his twenty-fourth; Li had taken ginseng daily for more than 200 years.
Glowing letters from readers abound. Listen to Mrs. H.D.B. of Oakfield, New York: “My husband had a very severe case of Gangrene, and in all, five doctors cared for it. All of them said that the only hope was to amputate next to the body, because his whole foot was affected. I sent for a bottle of Mentholine, priced $1.00, after three toes had already dropped off; I began using it and in three days’ time I saw an improvement. I kept on until I had used four bottles, and today his foot is cured.”
All the herbs and preparations mentioned could be ordered from whatever herb company had its imprint on the almanac, all of which were agents for the Indiana Botanic Gardens product line.
Throughout the pages, the Meyers convey their respect for traditional cures, a reverence for healing plants, and a concern for the careful preservation of their medicinal qualities. A bold-faced line at the bottom of one page states in no uncertain terms: “Botanicals Over a Year Old Are Worthless.”
The almanacs, particularly the one from 1941, carry hints of a changing marketplace. “Get me just one customer—send me the name and address for verification and I’ll send you a fine book free,” and elsewhere, “If our preparations please you, will you kindly tell your friends?”
This issue, which is loaded with recipes and an exhaustive dictionary of dream interpretations, announces that the following year will see “an entirely new, different and if possible more interesting Almanac,” although the editor adds his opinion that “each edition of this Almanac has been better than the previous edition.”
I stumbled across a reference to a book that helped me connect my tattered copies of the almanac to their family and business history. The book, by a Joseph Meyer, was published by Meyerbooks, a small Illinois firm specializing in books on herbs, herbal recipes, health, and Americana. I discovered that the firm was owned by Joseph’s grandson, David Meyer, who left the Indiana Botanic Gardens to start his publishing company in 1976. He filled in the gaps of the story.
The almanac lasted fifty-four years, then quietly died when Clarence Meyer retired. “The Herbalist Almanac retired with him,” David Meyer said. Clarence lived until the age of 94, passing on in 1997. The almanacs that survive in flea markets are a telling testimony to the endurance not only of a family legacy, but of the herb industry as well.
Kathleen Halloran, a freelance writer who lives in Laporte, Colorado, is the former editor of The Herb Companion, sister publication of Herbs for Health.