Fletcher’s Castoria and Dumbarton Oaks: An Historical Excavation

Recently, at the Georgetown Flea Market, the father-in-law of Director Jan Ziolkowski purchased a new artifact of relevance for the Dumbarton Oaks Archives, one allied neither to the Byzantine, nor the garden and landscape, nor the pre-Columbian components of the institution. In fact, at first glance, the artifact seems outrageously distant from the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection: it is a 1940 Life Magazine advertisement for Fletcher’s Castoria, a children’s laxative designed to accommodate their “delicate” systems:

Fletcher's Castoria advert, 1950.

Life Magazine, 1940. Dumbarton Oaks Archives, AR.DP.BL.075.

This advertisement plays out in captioned black-and-white images a disturbing domestic drama. A seated mother, her lips parted with difficulty, embraces her son, who cries out: “Don’t let daddy lick me again!” We are immediately assured, however, that the “old, old problem” (of childhood constipation, it is retrospectively implied) will be solved “in an up-to-date way” — this drama will have  a happy ending, namely with Fletcher’s Castoria.

Fletcher's Castoria bottles

Fletcher’s Castoria Bottles

As the panels unfold, the plot thickens: the son is constipated; Father mandates that the son take an adult-strength laxative for his own good and is prepared to lick him with a hairbrush if he resists. And yet the son does resist, on the grounds that he doesn’t like the taste of the laxative. Mother, disapproving of Father’s actions in the matter, informs him that her friend “Millie Bliss used to jam a bad-tasting laxative down her boy until her doctor put a stop to it. He said it could do more harm than good! The one Millie uses – not an ‘adult’ laxative, but one made especially for children — Fletcher’s Castoria — [is] mild, yet works effectively. Millie says it’s SAFE…and her boy loves its pleasant taste!” Father purchases Fletcher’s Castoria, and the boy happily takes his spoonful of medicine.

But who is this “Millie Bliss?” Mildred Barnes Bliss, one of the Founders of Dumbarton Oaks, had at one time been a major shareholder in the Centaur Company which was best known for manufacturing none other than—you guessed it—Fletcher’s Castoria. Is the use of the name “Millie Bliss,” then, coincidental or purposeful? Mildred Bliss’s father, Demas Barnes, in 1878 had financially backed the Centaur Company, and its success had made him and his family quite wealthy. The press routinely referred to Mildred Bliss as the “Castoria heiress,” and it was widely known that the legacy of this and other investments had allowed Mildred and her husband Robert Woods Bliss to fund their passions for collecting and gardening and to inaugurate a research institution in Washington, D.C. in 1940, the very year that this ad appeared.

Mildred Bliss, ca. 1927

Mildred Bliss, ca. 1927

The Blisses’ wealth, its origin, and the Blisses’ social standing occasionally have been the subjects of speculation during oral history interviews. Although Mildred’s inherited fortune was substantial, former Director of Byzantine Studies Henry Maguire recalls that, when he first arrived at Dumbarton Oaks as a Junior Fellow, the then-director William Tyler, who was Mildred Bliss’s godson, described the Blisses as being “wealthy, but not really very wealthy.” Maguire says that this comment “wasn’t really very kind,” but suggests that it wasn’t malicious either, just coldly accurate, given that, by the early 1970s, Maguire believed that “Dumbarton Oaks was beginning to feel the limits of its endowment.” And Maguire’s distant predecessor, Ihor Ševčenko, had even less kind memories regarding Mildred Bliss, especially as concerned her socioeconomic background and ties to Fletcher’s Castoria —

And of course you would come often [to Mrs. Bliss’s teas]. So, I had an opportunity to see her. One thing that of course made her quotation-marks “acceptable” to me…was that she spoke excellent French. It was, as I reconstructed later, a French of a young girl who was sent to Europe and who came from a rich California, basically parvenu family and who made the money on this Castoria for the children — which didn’t mean that her French was any worse. But…the thing which I couldn’t accept — she had…the greatest talent…to put you at ill ease.

One comment

  1. […] we unfortunately couldn’t interview for whatever reason, and D.O. miscellany, from the goofy (Fletcher’s Castoria, anyone?) to the primly sublime (meet Ms. Joan Southcote-Aston!). We hope the blog both sparks new […]

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