For those who know their U.S. history, it’s a given that the Civil War was costly both in terms of lives lost and money. But did you know about revenue stamps and how one ophthalmic patent medicine company used its branding long after the war was over? The backstory: In order to help pay the Union Army, Congress passed the Tax Act of 1862. The act required that a stamp be affixed to a wide array of goods and services. Manufacturers were given a discount if, instead of using government-issued stamps, they provided their own dies and cut the stamps themselves. Among the more than 300 businesses that participated, 120 were manufacturing over-the-counter medications known as patent medicines.

One ophthalmic patent medicine company that chose to create a private die revenue stamp was Dr. Isaac Thompson’s Celebrated Eye Water. Introduced in New England in 1795, this eye water is believed to be the longest-selling patent medicine. Originally the product contained alcohol, zinc sulphate, opium, and rosewater, and was advertised to soothe eyes. Top left is the company’s advertising trade card; above right is the stamp itself. Manufacture of the eye water ceased in 1955 after 160 years of production.

Courtesy of The Optical Heritage Museum, opticalheritagemuseum.org.


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