Lost Memphis: The W.T. Rawleigh Company

Photo by Vance Lauderdale

Every day, people drive past this impressive ruin overlooking Crump Blvd., close to Riverside Drive, without realizing it was once home to one of the largest mail-order companies in America.

These buildings once housed the W.T. Rawleigh Company. The firm was started by a fellow named — no surprise here — W.T. Rawleigh, who was born in Wisconsin in 1889 and started a business selling liniment and medicine to farmers. By 1895, he was so successful that he started manufacturing his own products. In the early 1900s, the W.T. Rawleigh Company, with its national headquarters in Freeport, Illinois, was producing and selling more than 100 household products — medicines, salves, balms, spices, flavorings, seasoning, ointments, cleaning products, you name it.

According to a company history that I scrounged up somewhere, Rawleigh was a forerunner of what they called the "direct-to-customer" method, meaning that you bought their products by mail or from door-to-door salesmen. Then as now, you won't find Rawleigh products in any store. Their method certainly worked; by 1920 Rawleigh had more than 22 million customers.

The company built sprawling manufacturing plants in several cities across America. The 110,000-square-foot facility at 139 Illinois (that's the one shown here) opened here in 1912 and was the largest Rawleigh plant in the country, making patent medicines, cosmetics, insecticides, and spices. I certainly hope they came up with a foolproof way to keep all those products separate from each other!

In 1958, the big manufacturing operation here shut down. I have no idea why; they didn't consult the Lauderdales about such matters. The buildings were converted into warehouses for the company.

Rawleigh finally closed its Memphis division completely in the late 1970s, and the complex  — which is actually three adjoining buildings — was sold. In recent years it has been used as a production and distribution facility for John Simmons' gift and art company, Carnevale, among other things. For a while, my pal Niel Hora, one of the best potters I've ever seen, had a studio and kiln tucked away on the very top floor.

The W.T. Rawleigh Company is still around, and has adapted to the changing times by setting up a handy website where customers can purchase their products online. A bottle of Camphor Balm is just  $12.95, and a jar of something called Propolis Salve is a bargain at $13.95. It's safe to say that some Rawleigh products are ... unusual. You can take your pick of an 8-ounce bottle of Internal Anti-Pain Oil or External Anti-Pain Oil (each only $12.95).

If all it took was a bottle of something to eliminate the pain in my life — external and internal — then I'd order a whole case of the stuff.

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Famed Memphis trivia expert Vance Lauderdale answers reader questions weekly here on his blog!

About This Blog

Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and Inside Memphis Business. Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

You can find him from time to time in the pages of the Memphis Flyer and MBQ, on WKNO television, and on Facebook. When he is not exploring the highways and byways of Memphis, he spends his time sleeping, napping, and dozing.

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