Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Lewis Edson Waterman's long strange trip

While most references have Lewis Edson Waterman selling insurance right up to the time he entered the fountain pen business, it has long been understood that Waterman's work history was neither simple nor straightforward. Much of the rather patchy evidence available has been nicely laid out in George Rimakis and Daniel Kirchheimer's article, "Blotting Out the Truth", but there is still more to be added.

Digging into the life stories of 19th-century American penmakers, it is striking how many pursued an astonishingly varied assortment of careers, sometimes moving great distances from job to job. In some cases I initially assumed that it could not possibly be all one person, rather than three or four individuals who happened to share the same name. Waterman followed a similarly complex odyssey, including multiple periods where his various vocations overlapped.

There are few records of Waterman prior to the Civil War. He appears as a twelve-year old in the 1850 census*, living in his stepfather's household in Westford, New York. He cannot be found in the 1860 census, however, nor can I find any documentary record of his early work teaching stenography -- though the birth of his daughter Lou Ella in Virginia on Sept 4, 1860 (per D. Jacobus and E. F. Waterman, The Waterman Family, vol. 2, 1942, p. 46) is consistent with biographical accounts from Waterman's lifetime (e.g. here and here) that state that he had taught Pitman shorthand at the University of Virginia. His absence from the census may be due to a move during its five-month run. A number of early biographical sketches recount that Waterman was selling books, but mentions of what sort are few and have not been fully noted. The books were those of Fowler & Wells, promoting phrenology, health faddism, and the like. By all indications, Waterman was a sincere believer, and remained so to the end of his life.

It is an open question how the young Waterman (23 at the outbreak of hostilities) managed to avoid military service during the Civil War. Instead, he began to sell life insurance. The early biographies date the beginning of this new career to 1862, a date consistent with the records I have been able to find. These include tax records from Battle Creek, Michigan*, where in September 1862 Waterman paid $1 in tax on a horse, buggy, and harness worth $120, and from Ann Arbor*, where in May 1863, listed as "Insurance Agent", he paid $10 for a business license. Another such payment is recorded in April 1864*, with Waterman now living in Grand Rapids. Waterman's income tax liability for 1863 is recorded here* and here*, on income of $165. The birth of Waterman's daughter Fay Elma in Michigan on March 9, 1862 (per Jacobus and Waterman) is another data point for his residence in that state. What brought him to Michigan in the first place is unknown.

It seems Waterman was still also teaching shorthand during this period, for he is surely the Waterman described in this rather typo-filled entry in The Standard-Phonographic Visitor, May 1864, p.66 (with a related entry on p. 62):
S. E. WATERMAN, Grand Rapids, Michigan, having compared the Standard Phonographic series with the Pitman books, which he first studied, has like all other Pitman phonographers dispasionate enough to look well to their own interests, declared in favor of Standard Phonography, and ordered a good supply of Standard Phonographic books for the class which he is now teaching. He will be an execellent phonographic writer as soon as he learns Standard Phonography in its fullness [sic].
Before 1864 was out, however, Waterman had left for Boston. In the 1865 Boston Almanac (no. 30, p. 23) he is listed at 27 State as general agent of the Aetna Life Insurance Company. The same information appears in following years: the 1865 Report of the Insurance Commissioners of Massachusetts; the 1867 Boston Almanac*; and the 1868 Boston Directory. In the last, however, there is also a new address listed -- 93 Washington -- and Waterman is now in partnership with a D. Chester as Aetna's general agents for the state. The entry in the 1869 edition* is much the same, with the added note that Waterman's house was in Newton (assessor's lists corroborate that he was living in Newton between 1867* and 1869*). The 1870 edition* puts him back in Boston, living at 616 Tremont, but thereafter Waterman disappears from the Boston-area directories for a few years. [UPDATE: unclaimed letter notices in the Cambridge Chronicle on March 3, 10, and 17, 1866 suggest that the Watermans had moved to Newton by then]

This dovetails with the biographies' statement that Waterman's health gave out in 1870 under the stress of having worked so hard to build up Aetna's insurance business, and that he thereafter spent some years as a traveling agent with a "roving commission" -- though there is reason to believe that some of the stress was domestic, rather than professional. The actual breaking point may have been in the autumn of 1869, as the partnership of Waterman & Chester is listed every month in The Insurance Times' Agents' Directory up through August, then disappears from September onward (vol. 2, 1869, pp. 4, 80, 164, 248, 324, 396, 468, 536; pp. 608, 680, 752, 824). Rimakis and Kirchheimer note that Waterman was back at the Boston Aetna office by the mid-1870s (he reappears in the Boston Almanac and Business Directory for 1875, copyrighted 1874, p. 294; again in the issues for 1876* and 1877; and then not again), but Waterman's life definitely took some interesting turns around 1870.

Studiously unmentioned in any of his biographies, Waterman left his wife and children. He moved to New York City, and attended lectures at the American Institute of Phrenology. The Institute's publications repeatedly list him as a graduate of the class of 1870 (The Phrenological Journal and Life Illustrated, vol. 80, Mar 1885, p. 277, for example, though Waterman in a 1900 letter to the Institute would modestly downplay the extent of his phrenological studies and expertise). Not long after, he makes his first appearance in Trow's New York City Directory, vol. 85, for the year ending May 1, 1872 (compiled and copyrighted, however, the year previous), p. 1201: "Waterman Lewis E. health lift, 214 B'way". This was a business address, as home addresses were preceded by an "h". "Health lift" may be obscure today, but at the time was a popular form of weight training based upon partial deadlifts done with a machine.

The machine Waterman was promoting would have been the Reactionary Lifter, illustrated above and sold by the Health Lift Company of New York City, which published a most informative book about their system in 1876. One of the three addresses listed in that book for "Principal Agencies and Exercise Rooms" in New York City was 178 Broadway, which is also where we find Waterman listed as "manager" in the 1874 edition of Trow's (vol. 87, compiled and copyrighted 1873, p. 1359*). Further confirmation of Waterman's employment by the Health Lift Company comes from the record of his (second) marriage on October 3, 1872*, where he is recorded as a resident of New York City, occupation "Supt of Health Lift Co."

Waterman's name disappears from Trow's after the 1874 edition, right around the time he reappears in Boston at Aetna's office. Perhaps he found it easier to sell insurance than weightlifting machines. Perhaps his new wife was not so keen on New York City life, and liked staying near her New England family and friends. As noted above, Waterman reappears in the Boston directories for the years 1875 through 1877. He is also listed in Massachusetts' Annual Reports of the Insurance Commissioner as one of Aetna's Boston sub-agents for life insurance for 1874, 1875, and 1876 (pp. 207, 140, 180), and as a Boston sub-agent for Northwestern National of Milwaukee for 1876 and 1877 (pp. 183, 161).

By 1877, however, Waterman was again on the move, popping up as one of two licensed Aetna agents for Saco, Maine in the state's 1877 Annual Report of the Insurance Commissioner, p. 85. The next few years are a bit of a blank; he was on the road again at the time of the 1880 census*, which found him on June 14 in Elmwood, Peoria, Illinois. His occupation was there listed as "Publisher", with his wife listed as "Traveling". What Waterman might have been publishing in 1880 is unclear. Perhaps he was working for Fowler & Wells once again, though something railroad-related is also possible given that his tenure as corresponding editor of National Car Builder (January 1881 to August 1882, per Rimakis and Kirchheimer) began only a few months later. [UPDATE: per Waterman's testimony in Wirt's lawsuit against Lapham & Bogart of 1887-88, he was working for the Railroad Gazette before the Car Builder, working for the two a total of four or five years, which neatly fills the gap between 1877 and 1882]

A number of early sources state that Waterman moved to Brooklyn in 1880. He is listed as a Brooklyn resident in his first patent application of 1883. Yet even when Waterman was supposedly settling down, he is hard to locate. He does not appear in the Trow's New York City Directory until the 1884-1885 edition (listed as "agent" at 304 Broadway -- at the time of compilation, he might not have been quite ready to put all his eggs in the fountain pen basket). In Lain's Brooklyn City Directory, there is a listing for a Lewis P. Waterman, clerk, living at 152 South 1st, that pops up in the 1882 edition* but not in those of 1880*, 1881*, 1883*, or 1884. From the 1885 edition on, however, he appears every year, his occupation consistently listed as "pens" or "penmfr." -- though his name is rather variously rendered: "Louis", "Lewis E.", "L. E.", "Louis E. W.", and "Lewis E.", between 1885 and 1889. His address in the 1885 directory is 471 Tompkins Ave, but he was successful enough by 1886 to move to the house at 265 Macon where he would live the rest of his life.

I have little to add here to the story of Waterman's involvement with Frank Holland, and his entry into the fountain pen business in that fateful year, 1883. And when it comes to noting how Waterman's various professional pursuits overlapped, Rimakis and Kirchheimer are not remiss in pointing out how Waterman's expertise in shorthand allowed him to speak with authority about the writer's tools of the trade, and how logical it was that some of the earliest Waterman pen advertisements are found in shorthand periodicals. Yet some of the early ads also reflect another, less obvious, convergence, for many of them are found in the publications of Fowler & Wells.

The ad shown above, for example, occupied the inside back cover of Fowler & Wells' 1884 printing of William Andrus Alcot's screed Tea and Coffee: Their Physical, Intellectual and Moral Effects on the Human System ("Tea and coffee, it is now believed, not only stimulate, but produce dyspepsia, nervous prostration, disturbance of the heart, sudden death in many cases, and not the slightest good in any case.") Note that the pen is being offered directly by Fowler & Wells, at their main Broadway address. The cross-marketing went both ways: a year's subscription to the Phrenological Journal is included with the purchase of a pen, and pens are sent out as premiums for those who sell three or more subscriptions to the Journal. Another mention of Waterman pens as sales premiums can be found in the Phrenological Journal, vol. 80, Jan 1885, p. 18, along with "Kidder's Electro-Magnetic Machine" and, intriguingly, a "Home Exerciser".

It took the success of his pen business for Lewis Edson Waterman to finally stay put. Not everyone who knew him, though, expected pens to prove all-absorbing. As a fellow phrenologist wrote in 1893 (What is Phrenology? no. 25, Jan 1893, p. 43):
L. E. Waterman, of ‘70, has made himself famous by the making of the Waterman Ideal Pen. He made an address at the Alumni dinner, and he is one of the officers of the Association. We are proud of his pen, and hope that he will make enough money to retire and give himself up to Phrenological work.
Waterman did not retire, but he did maintain his involvement with phrenology. An adulatory biographical profile, "Mr. Lewis Edson Waterman: A Phrenograph from a Personal Examination", was published several years later in the Phrenological Journal and Science of Health (vol. 107, Jun 1899, pp. 171-77). It is predictably full of pseudoscientific nonsense, expatiating upon the admirable qualities that could be read in the contours of Waterman's skull, but it also contains some bits of personal history that appear to have come directly from the subject of the interview, including the statement that "he has been sixteen years in the fountain pen business". Waterman pens were still being offered as premiums for sellers of subscriptions later that same year, and in September 1900 Waterman sent a letter to the American Institute of Phrenology stating:
If you think it would be any encouragement to your class to know that I have found my limited knowledge of Phrenology, which I gathered principally from attending a course of your lectures, has been of great practical service to me in reading the character of those with whom I have come in contact during my business career, you may tell them so. I have found it well worth the cost of time, effort, and money which I gave to it.
After Waterman died the following spring, the Phrenological Journal published a long and effusive obituary under the heading, "THE LATE LEWIS E. WATERMAN, VICE-PRESIDENT OF THE AMERICAN INSTITUTE OF PHRENOLOGY." (vol. 111, Jun 1901, pp. 199-200). The following excepts are of particular interest:
As a believer in Phrenology, he has done much to convince others of its usefulness, and, consequently, his influence has spread among hundreds of families with whom he was intimately connected through business, if not through other ties . . .

He was at one time connected with the Fowler & Wells Company, and was universally respected among his large number of work-people connected with the Waterman Company and the Waterman Condensing Company. He was an ideal man, in that he perfected everything he touched, and his great desire seemed to be to instil the principles of an earnest life into the character of those with whom he came in touch . . .

At his suggestion we have made a large number of phrenological examinations among those in whom he was particularly interested.
The reference to the Waterman Condensing Company brings us to the last of Waterman's ventures, begun well after fountain pens had made him wealthy. An early mention is found in The Medical Times (vol. 28, May 1900, p. 146):
The Waterman Condensing Co., of 157 Broadway, has located its plant in the heart of the best vineyard districts of California, and the product, to which has been given the name of “Uvada Grape Extract,” is becoming exceedingly popular wherever introduced.
Other sources and advertisements refer to the product as "Grape Food", emphasizing its value as a tonic -- "an invaluable food for invalids and convalescents" (Contemporary American Biography, vol. III, 1902, p. 205). And of course, Waterman personally shared the news of his new elixir with his fellow phrenologists (The Phrenological Journal and Science of Health, Apr 1901, p. 140).

The Waterman Condensing Company did not long outlive its founder. Manufacture began in the summer of 1900 (Sunset, vol. 5, no. 2, Jun 1900, p. 93), with ads for the fruit extracts appearing in various periodicals from the end of 1900 into 1901. The company was paying tax to New York State in 1903, but disappears from Trow's Copartnership and Corporation Directory between the 1902 and 1906 editions.

When I first learned of the Waterman Condensing Company many years ago, I presumed it was a case of a serial tinkerer coming up with something that took him in an unexpected direction -- a reasonable conclusion to draw about the Waterman of the later biographies, the inductee into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Now that we have a better understanding of the real Lewis Edson Waterman, this final venture appears in a quite different light. Waterman was less an inventor (his only patents of significance were for his original 1883 feeds) than a man on the move, ready to seize opportunities that came his way. The Waterman Condensing Company, with its "non-alcoholic, predigested fruit food of great force-giving power for those who THINK", was not a new departure so much as a return to its founder's roots. Had Waterman lived longer, he might well have gone on to pursue similar enterprises -- or even retired to "give himself up to Phrenological work". His heirs and successors, however, had different ideas, for his businesses and his legacy alike.


Phrenology wasn't Waterman's only idiosyncratic interest. In 1897 he joined the Society for Psychical Research (one of five new associates of the American Branch listed in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, vol. 8, Jan 1898, p. 165), a membership which he maintained to the end of his life (see Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, vols. 13-15, 1897-1901).

Waterman and his first wife were converted to Spiritualism in the late 1860s. The story is recounted in great detail in Benjamin Coleman, “The Twin Sisters: An Instructive Narrative”, The Spiritual Magazine, vol. 4, Sep 1869, pp. 401-404. Their daughter Rose, born in 1865, had a imaginary playmate who turned out to be her twin sister -- Sarah, called Lily -- who had died at birth. Waterman's wife Sarah Ann turned out to have psychic powers and was recognized by Spiritualist authorities as a medium (another mention of her as a medium appears in The Spiritual Pilgrim: A Biography of James M. Peebles, 1872, p. 58). The famous "spirit artists" Wella and Pet Anderson drew a portrait of Lily whose whereabouts I have not been able to determine. A contemporary reproduction can be seen here alongside a photograph of the four-year-old Rose. The twins must have had some celebrity, as their parents sold these photographs in various formats to devoted Spiritualists (25 cents each plus a three cent stamps).

The images above are © Bright Bytes Studio, and are shown with their kind permission. Visit their site here for related examples of Spiritualist portraits from their collection.
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