Ring's Ambrosia

Ring's bottle“Patent medicines”; “nostrums”; “cure-alls”; 19th century America was full of miracles in a bottle or a tin for sale to the public, and the “Medicine Show”, that combination of traveling entertainment and blatant sales pitch (a sort of live “infomercial” of its time), is part and parcel of our picture of that century’s cultural life.  Wilton was home to its own pharmacopoeial wonder – “The Greatest Healer on Earth”, according to its sales flyers, a salve that was known and sold all over America in the late 19th and early 20th century from a modest home-based factory in West Wilton operated by the Ring family and presided over by a quintessential Yankee, Philander Ring.   

Philander led a fascinating life by any era’s criteria; he moved to Wilton from his birthplace in Maine after the death of  his first wife in 1851, when he was 27 years old,  having put his hand to many things from the age of twelve on, including farming, store keeping, teaching and logging. He worked for Joseph Holt, then married Holt’s daughter Helen in 1853 and bought a store from her brother in West Wilton, which he kept for a number of years, serving as Postmaster there as well beginning in 1858.  

AmbrosiaThroughout the next several years, in the midst of the Civil War, Ring took to the road (leaving an assistant in charge of the store) in a peddler’s wagon, selling small items to merchants throughout New England as a sort of mobile wholesaler.  One of his successful products was a patent “hair restorer”; however, he harbored some misgivings about the efficacy and safety of the formula, and took it to a chemist in Peterborough who pronounced it a dangerous fake.  The chemist, Elisha Tubbs, offered Ring a formula of his own making; and he, Tubbs and Person Cheney (later Governor of New Hampshire) formed a company to manufacture this new product, called “Ambrosia”.  

Ring sold Ambrosia throughout New England for many years but had a falling out with Tubbs, and around 1869 took the not insignificant sum of $15,000.00 as a buyout from his old partners, with which he set himself up as a wholesaler in Boston.  A short period of success was followed by several severe business reverses throughout the 1870’s.  

AmbrosiaBy 1876, scraping together the last of his funds he, together with two other partners, bought back the Ambrosia company from Cheney (now located in Manchester), renamed it the Ring’s Ambrosia Company and moved it to Nashua.  The success of this venture restored Ring’s fortunes to the point where, in 1882, he bought out his partners and moved the business back to where he had started, in West Wilton, locating in the barn of his spacious farmhouse. There is a story that one day a worker in the barn tending a vat of ointment decided to pop down the road to the tavern for a quick refresher; while he was gone the vat boiled over and caught fire, destroying both the barn and the house!  

Witch HazelConcurrent with the move back to West Wilton, Ring expanded the company’s offerings to include Ring’s Witch Hazel Ointment, a product which would, in time, eclipse the Ambrosia hair restorer and become its only product and the thing for which the Ring company was famous.  

According to the sales literature, Ring’s Witch Hazel Ointment was good for an astonishing variety of ailments – it was suggested as a remedy for scratches, galls, open wounds, old sores, cracked hooves and sore teats; you could give it internally to chickens and roosters (mixed with cayenne pepper or ginger), for a condition called roup (which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a form of purulent catarrh affecting domestic Witch hazel directionspoultry”; basically, a chicken with a chest cold) – and this just for animals!  The family could use this miracle unguent for boils, corns, bruises, colds and cough, hemorrhoids, eczema, rheumatism, chafing and sore nipples.  Peg Hardy, Philander’s grand-daughter, has hundreds if not thousands of letters to the company from customers extolling the virtues of the Ointment, as well as from entrepreneurs from all over America who wished to become the local or area distributors of the product. 

Philander Ring died in 1910 at the ripe old age of 87, and passed the business on to his son Harry, who kept it going until 1937.  By the 1930’s the newly-emerging modern world had passed by the Ring’s Ambrosia Company and its products, and they passed out of use and into obscurity, like so many of these types of products, supplanted by the more rigorous (if less romantic) science of aspirin, quinine and sulfa drugs. And, in some indefinable way that has little or nothing to do with the efficacy of these miracle nostrums, our world is a bit poorer because of it.

Wicth Hazel Story
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