A Rich History
From humble beginnings, JR Watkins built an international company
Just from seeing the containers holding today’s Watkins products, many people just assume the company must have been around for a long time. They’re right. Joseph R. Watkins founded the company in Plainview, Minnesota. The year was 1868. The company began with just one product, Dr. Ward’s Red Liniment. Watkins purchased the formula directly from Dr. Ward, the inventor of the liniment product. While Dr. Ward had a great product, he lacked the business sense Watkins possessed.
J.R. Watkins moved his thriving liniment business from Plainview to Winona, Minnesota in the early 1970’s. At that time, Winona had a population of 20,000 residents. It was home of a huge lumbering business, being on the Mississippi River. Winona also had five railroads that went through the city. Most of the men in Winona worked at the lumber mills or as lumberjacks.
First product still a top seller
Many of the men went home at night with muscle aches and pains. J.R. believed so much in his liniment that he placed a trial mark line on every bottle. He told customers that the liniment from the top of the bottle to the trial mark line was free. If customers didn’t go below the trial mark, they would receive a 100% refund if they were not satisfied with the product. J.R. knew that before the customer got to the trial mark, their aches and pains would have ceased. No other company offered such a guarantee.
At the peak of its door-to-door sales era, Watkins also had 135 counter stores in North America, along with manufacturing and distribution centers in South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. With his widespread success, Watkins became an icon of his time. He traveled the globe in search of the finest sources of herbs, pepper, cinnamon and other spices for his product line, just as the company does today. For example, Watkins vanilla comes from vanilla beans grown in Madagascar, the same as it has been for over 100 years.
The company grew rapidly in the early 1900’s. By the 1930’s, it was the largest direct sales company in the world. During the Great Depression, Watkins actually grew in size, adding infrastructure, new regional facilities and most importantly, new jobs. As a result of its success, the public labeled Watkins a “depression-proof company.“
The first door-to-door sales company
The Watkins company was the first international direct sales company in the world. The direct sales force grew to become an American institution. “Watkins men” became part of Americana, from selling Watkins products from wagons in the 1800’s to selling Watkins products from paneled trucks, vans and station wagons in the 1900’s.
Watkins men were one of the few forms of communication in rural America. People relied on them to bring the latest news about national and world events. It was a different world — one that would eventually change and have a dramatic impact on the company and its future.
The statements made & opinions expressed on this page are those of the Independent Watkins Associates, who published this document. They are not to be construed as the statements or opinions of Watkins Incorporated.