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Which Witch Is Witch Hazel (and Which Dickinson Makes It)?

How one of America's oldest family brands
overcame internecine war and technological revolution to survive — and thrive

 

Business New Haven
10/20/1997
By: Michael C. Bingham
Driving along the byways of rural eastern Connecticut on a brilliant October morning bursting with color beneath a slate-blue canopy, one passes reminders - scarecrows, tangled pumpkin patches - that Hallowe'en is in the air.

Allowing the reverie of the road to run its course, one begins to look for other manifestations, real or imagined, of the scary season - say, a hobgoblin, banshee, even a witch.

But not witch hazel.

Which witch hazel is which? Go to the skin-care section of your “local” CVS pharmacy, and say hello to Dickinson's 100% Natural Witch Hazel Formula Astringent Cleanser, manufactured by the E.E. Dickinson Co. of Essex. Go to the first-aid section of the same store, and you'll see T.N. Dickinson's All Natural Witch hazel (sic) Astringent, from the T.N. Dickinson Co. of East Hampton.

What gives, you say?

Both products are practically indistinguishable, creations of the American Distilling & Manufacturing Co. of East Hampton, which has produced the T.N. Dickinson line for decades and E.E. Dickinson products since 1995. It was only weeks ago that the old E.E. Dickinson plant in Essex was shut down and operations consolidated with that of the “other” Dickinson in East Hampton (which, eventually, will disappoint tourists and leaf-peeper who know of E.E.'s product primarily from the old water tower on Railroad Avenue in Essex.)

The two Dickinson lines are by no means limited to “aqueous” witch hazel. Why, on the E.E. side, there are cleansing pads and towelettes (with and without aloe, a relatively recent ingredient innovation) and “translucent cleansing bars,” something quite akin to soap. T.N. markets shampoos and conditioners, “Hazelets” cleansing pads and (ugh) hemorrhoidal pads (“relieves hemorrhoidal and vaginal irritation”).

In addition, witch hazel is wholesaled around the globe and turns up in literally thousands of products sold from Ketchum, Idaho to Kobe, Japan, such as skin cleanser, makeup remover, after-shave lotions, mouthwash.

That's quite an empire for a product whose reputed efficacy has never been entirely secure. In 1953 the scientific journal Economic Botany (fairness alert: article supplied to the author by the manufacturer) allowed that “Appraisals of its therapeutic value...differ in the extreme.”

Asked about its efficacy, New Haven pharmacist Joseph Kahrimanis smiles. “Well, it certainly has a lot of herbal mystique,” he allows. “As an astringent it has some value. Most of our sales are for astringent and cleansing uses.”

But wait: What the heck is witch hazel?

It's the name given to a host of commercial products distilled from an American shrub, Hamamelis virginiana, the use of which (witch?) in North America as a medicinal remedy and household liniment predates the Mayflower's arrival in the New World.

The plant itself is either a rangy shrub or stunted tree, seldom exceeding two dozen feet in height. It is native to the northeastern U.S., especially New England, and in the wild is utterly indistinguishable save for two characteristics: It is the latest-blooming flora in New England forests, flowering as late as Christmas even in the northern woods. And at the time of flowering, the fruits of the previous year mature and burst open, scattering their two seeds as far as 30 feet.

Native Americans boiled the stems of Hamamelis virginiana and used the distillate (known to some as “magic water”) as a remedy for sore muscles, cuts, insect bites, piles, inflammations and even tumors. The Puritans learned about witch hazel (as they has about maple syrup) from the natives, and its use spread throughout the white populations over the next two centuries.

The commercialization of Hamamelis virginiana, however, was to await the arrival on the scene of one Thomas Newton Dickinson of Essex, a Baptist minister who made his fortune in the unholy manufacture of Civil War uniforms. Dickinson began brewing and distributing the witch hazel extract in Essex during the 1870s, beginning the association of a family name with a particular product - almost to the exclusion of other names - which was to last a century and beyond.

Thomas N. Dickinson Sr. begat two sons - Thomas N, Dickinson Jr. of Mystic and Everett E. Dickinson of Essex - who, following their father's death in 1900, continued in the family business, albeit along very independent and increasingly divergent lines.

Dickinson Sr. had organized witch hazel production around one large plant in Essex and eight smaller facilities throughout eastern Connecticut, usually near large stands of witch hazel (the shrub's poky growth cycle makes commercial cultivation uneconomical). Upon his passing, the Essex plant was ceded to Everett, while Thomas Jr. got everything else.

By all accounts the pair ran the newly bifurcated Dickinson witch hazel empire competently but separately, and some three decades later handed them off to their respective sons, Everett II and Thomas Jr.'s son, Leon.

By the late 1930s, according to Hampton Essex Corp. (the entity created to run the two Dickinson companies] co-president Thomas J. Schultz, a one-time Wall Street investment banker who joined the business in 1987, “Everett II persuaded Leon to close all of his small plants and get his witch hazel from [Everett II's] Essex. Leon did so; then Everett II cut him off.”

Owned at the time by a man named Blankenbiller, the pre-existing American Distilling & Manufacturing Co. of East Hampton was where Leon Dickinson turned in desperation with his witch hazel customers, but no source of witch hazel. Leon Dickinson persuaded Blankenbiller to switch some distilling capacity to witch hazel, by which means the T.N. Dickinson concern was able to survive, and even thrive - despite Leon's premature passing.

Blankenbiller was the steward of the T.N. Dickinson name until 1973, when Edward Jackowitz - whom Schultz describes as “the father of the modern witch hazel industry” - bought the company.

Witch hazel manufacture at the time was remarkably unchanged from its earliest days: Workers trundled in witch hazel chips in wheelbarrows and fed the old stills with pitchforks. The aqueous extract was the result of the steam-distilling process. (At the E.E. plant in Essex, the leftover chips were burnt to provide heat to the building as late as last year.)

Jackowitz changed all that. “He saw that this [method] couldn't continue,” Schultz explains, “both for quality-control reasons and production efficiency reasons.” So for the next seven years Jackowitz set about a massive modernization campaign, automating the distilling process (today the East Hampton plant is virtually 100-percent automated; the company employs only about 50 workers there) and adding an eastern wing onto the plant that doubled its size.

At about the same time the new plant opened, Jackowitz had to fend off a potential regulatory disaster. In 1980 the federal Food & Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it was downgrading witch hazel from a Category I substance - which can make claims safety and efficacy claims - to Category III, which can make no such claims. Only after Jackowitz personally made the product's case to the FDA (backed by a supporting cast from the pharmaceutical community, including Dickinson customers) did the agency reverse its decision.

Meanwhile, in the late 1970s, the last of the E.E. Dickinson family members died or retired from the business, recounts Schultz. That passing marked the beginning of a period during which ownership of E.E. Dickinson was in continuous flux - a state which would be resolved only in 1997. “At that point, one of the banks, acting as trustee for the estate, took over the E.E. Dickinson business,” says Schultz. A bank executive operated the business, still in direct competition with Jackowitz' T.N. Dickinson, for a few years, then decided he would try to sell the business to the Jackowitz.

That attempt would be the first of several tries to reconcile the two Dickinson lines rent asunder by the family patriarch. Instead, E.E. Dickinson was sold in the early 1980s to two executives from McKesson, a distributor. By 1985, “Those people, again, were in negotiations to sell the business to Ed [Jackowitz],” says Schultz - but again to no avail. Instead, the pair sold E.E. Dickinson to a German firm, Merz.

Two years later Schultz joined Jackowitz and set about trying to make a deal. “The old [E.E. Dickinson] plant in Essex hadn't had anywhere near the capital investment that you see here. [The E.E.] company was attempting simply to compete, but simply didn't have the efficiency or the quality-control of [American Distilling].” So Schultz and Jackowitz opened a new round of negotiations in 1987-88, this time with Merz, to acquire the business. And again the talks ultimately failed.

It wasn't until 1995 that Merz and American Distilling were able to come to an agreement to sell E.E. Dickinson to American. “We ended up with a joint venture between Ed Jackowitz, the owner of American Distilling, and Merz,” Schultz says. It is that partnership, logically named the Hampton Essex Corp., that Schultz oversees today. And Jackowitz is still there running day-to-day operations. Meanwhile, sales and marketing are headquartered in Greensboro, N.C., home to Merz North American operations.

Hampton Essex manufactures and sells E.E. Dickinson witch hazel which, as Schultz points out, “is a formula, and T.N. Dickinson witch hazel, which is an USP drug.”

Thus it turns out, after all, that there really is a difference. Explains Schultz: “The E.E. Dickinson formula is a blended product which contains witch hazel extract, water, alcohol [14 percent] and witch hazel distillate. The T.N. product is an entirely distilled product.” In other words, the T.N. product is a drug; the E.E. a mere “formula.”

While we're at it, does anybody know why it's called “witch hazel”?

Says Jackowitz, the father of the modern witch hazel business: “I don't.”

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