Chase, A. W. (Alvin Wood), 1817-1885
Alvin Wood Chase, peddler, physician, author, printer and newspaper owner, was born in Cayuga County, New York, in 1817. At age eleven his family moved to Buffalo, N.Y., where he was educated at the local schoolhouse. He left home as a teen-ager, and spent the next twenty-five years peddling household wares and medicines to settlers of what was then the northwest, initially along the Maumee River near Toledo, Ohio, an area ceded by Indian tribes less than fifty years earlier. He bought and collected folk remedies and recipes wherever he went, and became adept at trading them to others. In 1840 he stayed in Dresden, Ohio, where he met Martha Shutts, originally from New York. The couple was married in the spring of 1841, and had several children.
Chase, who continued to read and educate himself, dreamed of being a doctor. In 1856, the family came to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where the University of Michigan permitted Chase to enter as a "partialist" in the College of Medicine and Surgery; his lack of formal education barred him from receiving a medical degree. To support his family, he sold his health remedies to druggists and doctors in the area, including Christian Eberback, Ann Arbor's first druggist. Eberback would later edit a German translation of Chase's book, and provide promotional testimonials. Chase also sold to merchants his recipes for wine, glue, vinegar and other useful concoctions. Also in 1856, Chase published his first pamphlet, a slim collection of seventeen formulas. In 1858 Chase went to Cincinnati and enrolled in the Cincinnati Eclectic Medical Institute, where sixteen weeks later he was awarded his medical degree. He was a hard-working student, and was elected to give the Valedictory. Commenting later on his school success, Chase said, "I received that, the first honor of the class. As I do in all things wise, that is, when I have anything to do, I do it with all my might." Returning to Ann Arbor, Chase published A Guide to Wealth! Over One Hundred Valuable Recipes, for Saloons, Inn-Keepers, Grocers, Druggists, Merchants and for Families Generally (1858). As the title reveals, Chase offered practical recipes applicable to a large variety of trades. By 1860, Chase's book contained over six hundred recipes, and by 1863, over eight hundred recipes; its title became Dr. Chase's Recipes, or, Information For Everybody, and sold extremely well, largely through mail-order. At the time, many pioneers and settlers were eager to have a multi-purpose how-to guide to help them through the myriad of tasks and situations they faced.
In 1864, Dr. Chase began building a printing house in Ann Arbor. By the time it was completed, it was one of the largest steam-powered printing facilities of its kind. It had gaslights, very high ceilings, and a steam elevator, which could haul reams of paper from the pressroom in the basement to the bindery on the third floor. It had six presses, equipped for book, newspaper, handbill, and poster printing. Not only did Chase print his bestselling book, he also bought the town newspaper, the Peninsular Courier, and turned it into the highest circulating paper in the county, using its circulation to further advertise his book. At the height of his success, in 1868, he doubled the size of his Steam Printing House and held a banquet in honor of the completion. Four thousand visitors toured the plant, and four hundred of Ann Arbor's leading citizens enjoyed a feast, including the mayor and the presidents of University of Michigan and Albion College. Chase had become a rich man, not only through his book and newspaper, but also through his medical practice, and other printing contracts; his large-scale operation put many small printers out of work.
Though only fifty-two years old, Chase was plagued by premonitions of death, and doubts that his business could continue to grow. In 1869, he and Rice A. Beal, a retired lumber baron, reached an agreement; Chase sold Beal everything he had built, including the printing house and all its machinery, his newspaper, the rights to his book, and the commercial use of his name. He signed papers promising never to publish in Michigan again. Then he left for Sauk Rapids, Minnesota, to take possession of the hotel Beal deeded to Chase in the bargain. Beal later said of Chase: "His sight was poor and his health failing; said he was admonished and he must close up his earthly matters; said all his relations and father had died at an early age and he could not possibly live over fifty-six. Says I: 'You look well and ought not to die yet.' Says he: 'I ain't afraid to die! I am prepared; I am a good Christian man.'"
Fortunately, or rather, unfortunately, Chase's health did not fail. Instead, he realized the great error he had made. Encouraged by friends, who assured him his promise to Beal would not hold up under scrutiny of the law, he came back to Ann Arbor and published a new book, Dr. Chase's Family Physician, Farrier, Bee-Keeper, and Second Receipt Book Being an Entirely New & Complete Treatise (1873). He formed a publishing company and began publishing a competing newspaper, The Ann Arbor Register, with the intent to put Beal out of business. Beal sued to enjoin the newspaper and sales of Dr. Chase's new book, and eventually won his case in 1875. Chase moved publication to his old territory of Toledo, Ohio, and sold many books, but his business partners forced him out, and he was reduced to hawking recipes - such as Dr. Chase's Dyspeptic Cordial and Blood Regenerator, and Dr. Chase's Catarrh Snuff - by mail to earn some income. He wrote a third recipe book but could not raise the money necessary to publish it. He even approached the late Rice A. Beal's son, Junius, who was running the booming Ann Arbor business Chase had created, but Junius was not interested. In 1885, a defeated man, Chase succumbed to pneumonia, and died in Toledo. He was buried in Forest Hill Cemetery in Ann Arbor, Michigan. F.B. Dickerson of Detroit published his third book, Dr. Chase's Third, Last and Complete Receipt Book, in 1887 as a "Memorial Edition," and it sold very well. By 1900, when Junius Beal sold the business, the sixty Beal editions amounted to over a million copies sold. In 1915, one publisher estimated that total sales of all editions amounted to over four million.
Judging from Chase's writing, he was a born salesman. Though he tried to tone down his bluster in later editions of his book, his aim was always to instill confidence and true loyalty in his recipes and advice. Of one formula he says, "This Syrup for Consumptives has raised many a person from an almost certain deathbed, and sent them rejoicing through many years of life and health . . ." He noticed every little bit of advice, gathered it up, and sold it. For instance, in the tenth edition of Dr. Chase's Recipes (1864) (represented in this collection), there is a "musical curiosity" - a tip for teaching children how to read rhythmic values of written notes, based on the child-like notion that the note with one leg moves faster than one without, and the note with more legs "bent up" moves even faster.
Though many of Chase's health "remedies" would be discredited by modern science, during his time, folk remedies were traditionally popular and less expensive than a visit to a physician. Many people were skeptical of the often ineffective treatments offered by orthodox medicine and Chase tapped into a long-standing tradition of self-medication. His book, a compendium of therapeutic lore for the frontier home, combined with his powerful printing capability, satisfied a widespread grassroots demand for some sort of authority on medicines before the advent of modern pharmacology.
- Ackerman, Marsha, A Man, A Book, A Building, or, The History of Dr. Chase's Steam Printing House. Ann Arbor, MI: Dobson-McOmber Agency, 1994.
- Chase, A.W., M.D., A Guide to Wealth! Over One Hundred Valuable Recipes, for Saloons, Inn-Keepers, Grocers, Druggists, Merchants and for Families Generally. Includes brief "In Memoriam" by L. Davis. Ann Arbor, MI: Friends of the Ann Arbor Public Library, 1982. Facsimile of Fifth Edition, Ann Arbor, MI: Chase, 1858.
- ----------, Dr. Chase's Recipes, or, Information for Everybody. Tenth Edition. Ann Arbor, MI: Chase, 1864.
- Kerwin, Fred N. & Marjorie, "Michigan's Favorite Medicine Man," Esquire Magazine, December 1956.
Written by Anne-Marie Rachman