Southborough Historical Society
History of the Joseph Burnett Company
(Revision Date: March 29, 2010)
The Joseph Burnett Company headquarters at 437-447 D Street, South Boston, as it originally appeared.
The Joseph Burnett Company began in 1847 when druggist/chemist, Joseph Burnett developed a vanilla extract for flavoring foods. At the time, he was a partner with Theodore Metcalf, a Boston druggist. Their store was located at 33 Tremont Row in Boston.1
Joseph Burnett began as an apprentice to Theodore Metcalf in 1837, shortly after graduating from the Worcester College of Pharmacy (Some sources claim he attended the English and Latin school instead, but never received a college education). It is said he traveled daily to school in Worcester from his home in Southborough by horse-drawn wagon. Before long, he earned a reputation for selling only products of the purist quality.
On December 27, 18451a, at age 25, he became a full partner of the newly named Metcalf and Burnett Chemical Company. He could now hang out his own shingle. Mr. Metcalf, it is said, went into retirement, but it is likely he remained in the background with his “finger still into the pie”, as he was able to resume his leading part in the business after Joseph Burnett left.
The Boston City Directories, list him as living at 8 Bulfinch Place, Boston, home of Mr. Metcalf in 1845. He may have lived at this address not long after beginning his association with Mr. Metcalf, but the City Directories for 1837 thru 1844, do not list a residence for Mr. Burnett (he was also known as Dr. Burnett). We do know he moved to Boston when he began working with Mr. Metcalf, and it is likely he stayed at his residence before becoming prominent. It was a common practice for a young apprentice to live at his mentor’s residence until he became established in his own right and better able to provide for himself and his future family.
Joseph Burnett’s Chemist Shop is at left center of the illustration. (Courtesy of The Christian Science Monitor)12
Theodore Metcalf and Joseph Burnett are listed as residents of of 21 Somerset Street beginning in 1846. After Joseph married Josephine Cutter, on June 20, 1848, they lived at this address until 1850 when they moved to the Stone House in Southborough. Joseph, however, still maintained his address at 21 Somerset Street as well until 1855. He acquired a Boston residence at 133 Beacon Street in 1887, which after his death in 1894 went to his wife, Josephine (a ward map of Boston from 1902 shows her as the owner). Sons, Harry. Robert and John T. lived at this address until shortly after their mother died in 1905 (the Boston City Directory does not list them at the Beacon Street address after 1907). The brothers’ Boston business addresses were often mentioned as their residential addresses. Whether or not they had a place to stay at their business office is not known. The estate (the Southborough residence of the late Joseph Burnett) was placed in trust with 3 family members (John T. Burnett, Robert M. Burnett, and William W. Vaughn) in September, 1894. It was turned over to George H. Burnett by the trustees on February 10, 1928. George Burnett sold the property in July 1947.
“Dr. William Thomas Green Morton, a Boston dentist, was experimenting with the use of ether as an anesthetic at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He had poor results and realized the ether he was using was impure. Another doctor (Charles T. Jackson) told him …to buy all of his drugs from Joseph Burnett to insure their purity. Dr. Morton bought his ether [exclusively] from Joseph Burnett and performed the first successful painless operation on October 16, 1846."2 The procedure is claimed to be the first public demonstrated use of ether. There are others who have claimed to have used ether during surgery prior to this date.2a After this success Dr. Morton said, “I acknowledge that I was subsequently indebted to Dr. Jackson for valuable information as to the kinds and preparations of ether and for the recommendation of the highly rectified [ether] from Burnett’s as the most safe and efficient.”3
Around this time, Benjamin Codman, a graduate of Harvard Medical School in 1845, purchased the entire stock of dental supplies from druggist Joseph Burnett. Dr. Codman opened his Dental Depot on Tremont Street. Later, in 1853, he took Asahel Shurtleff on as his assistant and added surgical instruments and anatomical supplies to the line, establishing the Benjamin S. Codman & Company (later, Codman & Shurtleff, Inc.). The company is currently part of the Johnson & Johnson family of products.3a
For more about Benjamin Codman and his company see: www.codman.com/about.asp.
Old Newspaper Ad for Dr. Morton’s improved method of dentistry and the ether inhaler he used during painless surgery and dental procedures can be found at: thewritingworks.com/anesthesia.html
Dr. William T. Morton (1819-1868)
The “Good Samaritan Monument to Ether" located in Boston’s Public Garden. One of the inscriptions reads; "Discovery that the inhaling of ether causes insensibility to pain, first proved to the world at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, October 1846." Due to a controversy over who was the first to use ether during surgery, the monument features a statue of a Good Samaritan holding an unconscious young man, and no mention is made of Dr. Morton. Joseph Burnett’s contribution to painless surgery was made by his providing reliable ether.
Photo, information, and inscription thanks to Dick O’Brien (MrBoston@comcast.net).
“In 1847 a [prominent] lady [wife of a wealthy Boston manufacturer] who had lived some years in France, entered the store of Joseph Burnett, the Boston chemist. She said she was very anxious to procure a vanilla flavor for her creams, sauces and desserts, such as she had been getting in Paris.
At that time the only extract of any kind in this country for flavoring purposes was a cheap extract of lemon. A few French chefs used the vanilla bean itself. This was the clumsy, unsanitary and inconvenient way these chefs got their vanilla flavoring; they would purchase one or two vanilla beans, cut them up and put them in a linen bag, ready to use like a tea ball, to flavor whatever was required. The results from this tedious, inexact method of extracting the flavor were of course very unsatisfactory. When the bag was first used it would give the delicious flavor of pure vanilla, but afterwards, when it became diluted, the taste was weak and unpalatable. It was never uniform in strength or flavor. It was always expensive because the full rich flavor could never be thoroughly extracted.
Mr. Burnett listened to the lady's description of the flavoring she wanted. This extraordinary request challenged Mr. Burnett’s resourcefulness. A man ahead of his time, he believed in supplying what his customers needed, if he could. He busied himself in his laboratory. He [went to New York] and bought a pound of the very best vanilla beans he could procure [for $3.50] and extracted the rare, delicate flavor of which she spoke, and after long, careful experiments, when he was satisfied with its quality, he made the first Vanilla Extract that was ever sold in this country.”4 “The lady was so pleased she urged him to make more, promising to take her supplies of it from him and to introduce it to her aristocratic friends. This was the beginning of Vanilla and other extracts in this country.”5
The Tremont School (of Medicine), which had a close relationship with the Harvard Medical School, opened in September. 1838. The rooms of the school where located at 33 Tremont Street, over the T. Metcalf’s and later, J. Burnett’s Apothecary (They relocated their apothecary to 39 Tremont Row in 1853).5a
"In 1855 he sold off his ½ partnership in the Metcalf Company for a tidy sum. It was an amicable split and Joseph and Theodore remained closely associated in business for the remainder of their lives. Joseph Burnett soon saw that if one flavor made business good, additional flavors would make business even better. The Boston City Directories show his business located at 41 Tremont Row (1856) and 57 Tremont Row (1857). It is likely he moved to these addresses temporarily while he looked for a satisfactory site. By 1857 the business expanded rapidly and Joseph moved to a larger facility, a rented factory, at 27 Central Street, Boston in 1858.”6. In the same year he became a partner with William G. Edmonds and the company became known as Joseph Burnett & Co. Soon his products were sold not only in the United States but all over the world as well. This policy of continuing to introduce new products distinguished the company throughout its history. By the time of the move to Central Street, the Company produced Lemon, Vanilla, Almond, Rose, Nutmeg, Peach, Celery, Cinnamon, Cloves, Nectarine, Ginger and Orange extracts. They also produced and sold, Wood Violet Perfume, Cologne, Cocoaine for the hair (which he invented in 1857 and sold for over 40 years), Florimel (a perfume for the handkerchief), Kalliston (for a healthy skin and complexion), Jamaica Ginger (for the stomach), Oriental Tooth Wash, Cod Liver Oil, Jonas Whitcomb’s Asthma Remedy and several other personal/medical products. By the early 20th Century, with the stricter drug laws and regulations, these products were no longer produced and sold by the company and only food related products would be marketed.7 (See Burnett’s Medicine and Personal Products).
“In 1894, just before Joseph Burnett died, a new factory was opened at 36 India Street. About this time the increasing interest in fancy cooking warranted the marketing of a pure color for coloring candies, frostings, etc. After extended experimenting in the laboratory and kitchen, Burnett's Color Pastes were out on the market.”8 Food coloring would later come in a liquid and tablet form as well (c.1930’s).
John T. Burnett, President of the Joseph Burnett Company (1907-1929)
The Joseph Burnett Company was incorporated in 1895. According to magazine ads for their products, it appears an office was opened in Chicago circa 1891-1900 (there was also one at 592 Broadway, New York mentioned in an ad from 1868). We have no other dates or information about these locales. There were also many agents throughout the United States and other parts of the world. “[Joseph’s] sons, Harry (treasurer) and Robert (interim president), and John T., who later (1907) became president of the company9, continued the manufacturing policy of their father, which was to make the very finest extracts that could be made and advertise the fact to the consumer. The wisdom of this policy can be discerned in the steady growth of the sales9a, which by 1920 necessitated the building of a fine new factory at 437 D Street Boston (this eventually extended through 447 D Street as the business expanded), equipped with all the latest machinery for manufacturing, packaging and handling the various products.”10 In 1922 the company moved from its previous location, 36 India Street, to the new factory and office at 437 D Street in South Boston. Currently the building is beautifully restored, looking much as it did in 1922 (see photo below). 11
The former Joseph Burnett Company office/factory at 437 D Street, South Boston (See the photo at the top for comparison). The large “B’s” still adorn the cornices.
“In 1919, after a careful market analysis, it was decided that fine spices could be handled to advantage, and so Burnett's Spices, the choicest grown in the tropics, were added to the extract line.”12
During the 1920’s thru the 1940’s, the Burnett Company added Mint Jelly, Marshmallow, Flavored Puddings, a Liquid-Mix for making Ice Cream and Sherbet, a Ready-Mix Powder for making ice cream, and a Pie Crust and Muffin Mix. Many different flavors and colors were added to the extract, food coloring, and paste products. At this time Burnett’s boasted 29 extract flavors (Final number over the years, by our count, was 33). "The Joseph Burnett Company, a division of American [Home] Foods, Inc., and known for more than a century for its flavoring extracts and food colorings, [introduced] instant puddings of chocolate, butterscotch, and, of course, vanilla in 1951 (see the following paragraph about the sale of the company to American Home Foods, Inc.) Like the Amazo puddings that first became available in March, 1949, these require no cooking. The contents of the 4 1/2-ounce package (14 cents at Gristede stores) are mixed with milk, whipped briefly, then poured into serving dishes.”12a
John T. died in 1929 and Henry P. Kidder (1895-1975), son of Josephine (who was the daughter of Joseph Burnett), became the Burnett Company’s President. Harry died in 1927 and George H. Burnett (1884-1951), son of Robert, became treasurer. Both served in these capacities until at least 1946 when the company was sold to American Home Foods, Inc., a subsidiary of American Home Products Corporation, now known as Wyeth12b (the date the sale was announced was May 2, 1946; see Wall Street Journal article summary below). There is no listing in the Boston City Directories after 1946 for a company President or Treasurer, only District Sales Manager and N. E. Division Manager. George Burnett’s obituary (see below) indicates he became president of the Joseph Burnett Company, but this is probably an error as he is listed as treasurer in 1946. The factory and land at 437-447 D Street was sold on October 13, 1947. 13 From 1948 thru 1961, the company location is listed as 43 Leon Street, Room 310, Roxbury (a section of Boston). After 1961 there are no listings for the company in the Boston City Directories. According to “Find Owner Search” on the web, the last ownership of the Burnett products was the Doxsee Food Corporation which stopped producing them at an unknown date.13a Doxsee Food Corporation, which merged with Snow’s Seafood Corporation, is currently part of Castleberry's Food Company. Castleberry’s acquired the Snow's / Doxsee business in 1994.
Courtesy of The Christian Science Monitor, February 15, 1951.
Courtesy of The Wall Street Journal, April 6, 1946
Courtesy of The Wall Street Journal, May 2, 1946
Just prior to the sale, the company celebrated its 100th anniversary. Its products date the company beginnings to 1847, but the celebration dated it from the time of Joseph Burnett’s becoming a partner and able to hang out his own shingle in 1845. The party was given for home economists of New England at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Boston on December 27, 1945. An article in the Christian Science Monitor from 1945 goes on to state; “Not content to rest on the laurels won during its years of service to several generations of housewives, the company is still looking for and developing new ideas. In fact, George Burnett, treasurer of the organization, confides that within the next few months customers will find on their grocer’s shelves a brand-new Burnett’s flavor, but its name is still a secret.”14
The Burnett name continued in use until at least the 1960’s and probably later15. After that time, it was no longer used. Memories dim and become lost with each succeeding generation until a once great product name is no longer relevant.
1Theodore Metcalf & Company was established in 1837. A Theodore Metcalf product from around the time of his association with Joseph Burnett: METCALF COCAINE WINE, made in Boston with “fresh cocaine leaves and it came pure” by THEODORE METCALF & CO., also it was recommended for the “neuralgia, insomnia, loss of heart”. For a photo of his store, later located at 39 Tremont Row (renamed Tremont Street) go to: http://www.helloboston.com/BookFiles/05_Pages_081-100.pdf#search=%22theodore%20metcalf%20co.%20store%22 and scroll down to page 87.
1aThe year in which Joseph Burnett became a full partner with Theodore Metcalf has been corrected from 1844 to 1845. The former date was from an obituary written at the time of Joseph Burnett’s death. Other, more reliable, sources have indicated the year as 1845.
2The Story of Joseph Burnett by Catherine Gardner Mayes, page 8.
2a Our thanks to Dick O’Brien (MrBoston@comcast.net) for alerting us to this information from the Mass. General Hospital.
3The Living age Volume 16, Issue 201, March 18, 1848. Also see, A History of the Massachusetts General Hospital by Nathaniel Ingersoll Bowditch, 1851.
3aFrom “About Codman, a Company Profile” @ Johnson & Johnson Company.
4 The Story of a Pantry Shelf, an Outline history of Grocery Specialties, A Lady Asked for Vanilla, pp. 43/44, Butterick publishing company. Created /Published by Butterick, New York [c1925] (From the Library of Congress Files).
5 The Illustrated American-Boston Food Exhibition, November 7, 1891, p. 573.
5a The Harvard Medical School Vol. 1, By Thomas Francis Harrington, 1905.
6 The Story of a Pantry Shelf, an Outline history of Grocery Specialties, p. 43. [Editor: The Boston City Directory for 1858 shows the business location as 27 Central Street. The business moved there during the latter part of 1857].
7 Mention is made in The Trade Catalogs of Seeds, 1855-1938, by Joseph Harris, of the Burnett Company also marketing seeds for gardening. The catalog lists the following seed companies; A. Blanc & Co.,; American Seed Garden.; Amity Gardens.; B.K. Bliss (Firm); Briggs & Bro's.; Bristol Nurseries.; Brockton Gardens.; Brown Brothers Company.; Butler & Jewell Co.; C.E. Allen (Firm); C.R. Burr & Co. (Manchester, Conn.); D. Brandt (Firm); F. Batteldes & Co.; H.W. Buckbee (Firm); I.H. Arnold & Son.; Jos. H. Black, Son & Co.; Joseph Breck & Sons.; Joseph Burnett & Co. (Boston, Mass.); Luther Burbank (Firm); Robert Buist Company.; Samuel M. Adams & Company.; W.P. Lothrop (Firm); W.W. Rawson & Co.; W. Atlee Burpee Company. We have no other information concerning this part of the business at this writing.
8 The Story of a Pantry Shelf, an Outline history of Grocery Specialties. page 44.
9 The Boston City Directories list a John T. Burnett Extracts Company at 27 Central Street, Boston (c.1894?-1905). The directories show the company at this address from 1900-1905. The 1894 is an assumption that it was at this location after the Joseph Burnett Company moved on to 36 India Street in 1894.
9a In 1911 the company had 60,000 authorized shares of stock, and had $223,560 assets, $106,236 liabilities, and a $117,234 profit & equity. At the time approximately 60% of American workers made less than $12 per year, and a kit to build a home from Sears, Roebuck & Co. sold for from $795 to $1,995 (Figures quoted are from The Public Documents of Massachusetts, 1912 and the Sears, Roebuck & Company catalog for 1908).
10 The Story of a Pantry Shelf, an Outline history of Grocery Specialties. page 44.
11 Today “437 D Street is a seven-story, fully renovated loft-style condominium complex in Fort Point Channel, South Boston, MA. The building contains approximately 96,000 square feet and was the former home of Beacon Electric [owners sometime after its sale by American Home Products/Burnett Company]. Fort Point Channel is adjacent to the Financial District, and has a building mix of office, industrial and residential. It is an attractive location for both Boston artists and the urban chic because of its convenient access to downtown and its stock of industrial buildings suitable for live/work loft use. We bought this 96,000 SF industrial building in shell condition and sold all the condominium units by April, 1997.” From Cathartes Private Investments. For more information, see their website at www.cathartesprivate.com/portfolio/family.htm.
12 The Story of a Pantry Shelf, an Outline history of Grocery Specialties. page 44.
12aThe New York Times, “New Uncooked Puddings” July 31, 1951 (p. 18).
12b “Wyeth, formerly known as American Home Products (AHP), is one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. The company is based in Madison, New Jersey. They are known for manufacturing the over-the-counter (OTC) drugs Robitussin and the analgesic Advil (ibuprofen), as well as the prescription drugs Premarin and Effexor, which both boast over $3 billion in sales annually.” This information thanks to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia @ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wyeth
13a Find Owner Search at http://www.findownersearch.com. Additional information from “Ask the Globe”. The Boston Globe, July 29, 1987, 3rd Edition, National & Foreign, page 20.
14 The Christian Science Monitor, “Woman Today”, A Woman’s Plea for Vanilla Starts a Business, by Helen Henley, Staff Writer, December 26, 1945. Reproduced with permission from the above mentioned issue of The Christian Science Monitor (www.csmonitor.com). Copyright, 1946 The Christian Science Monitor. All rights reserved.
15 The last ad we have seen is from 1962, but the product could have been sold after this date. As there are hundreds of magazines and newspaper ads, there may be ads for Burnett products from later dates as well.
Boston City Directories; 1837 thru 1962.
Richard E. Noble, Fences of Stone, a History of Southborough, Massachusetts, Peter E. Randall, publisher, 1990 (available at our Museum Store).
Ward Maps @ http://wardmaps.com
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