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page 175 -- Rough on Rats

updated 20 February 2016
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E.S. Wells concocted "Rough on Rats" to kill the rats that were eating his lunch in a back room while he waited on customers in the front of his store. He took advantage of the trademark law of 1870 to trademark the name for his rat poison. That mark combined with aggressive advertising as portrayed in the Arnold Collection, made him a fortune. Here is the record of the last renewal of the mark by his descendents:

Evidently, "Rough on Rats," a combination of arsenic and coal, was tough on humans, too. It poisoned people as well as animals indiscriminately.

While researching this product, I came upon one of the best serious articles on the social efficacy of advertising cards as agents of cultural transmission. Thanks to James Chan for an illuminating article!

''Rough on Rats'': Racism and Advertising in the Late 19th Century
© 2015 -

The Chan article is an excellent discussion of the transmission of uncomplimentary (to say the least!) racial stereotypes, in particular those related to Americans of Chinese descent. Racial as well as gender stereotypes are very well represented in the advertising trade cards I have seen.

Mr. Chan states, "If one can understand the cultural attitudes of a society through its advertising, then one can also understand past cultural attitudes by analyzing advertising from a society's past. I will discuss the cultural attitudes that American society (as well as other European societies) has had toward Chinese and Chinese Americans and will analyze these attitudes through advertising or trade cards, an advertising medium that is no longer in use."

E.S. Wells, manufacturer of Rough on Rats, was no stranger to prejudice. He went so far as to incorporate an anti-immigrant, racist political message in one of his cards. Can you find it?

(from Google image search)
"They Must Go" doesn't refer just to rats,
but also to the Chinese(?) immigrants who
are portrayed here as including rats in their diet.
Stereotypes can lead to ghastly policy decisions, particularly in the development of U.S. immigration policy.  Here's an example of what such stereotyping can do:

The sign in the background reads:

Rough on Rats was "rough" on everybody.
It contained the deadly poison arsenic, and killed people (and their pets), too.

"Rough on Rats" 1933
from YouTube

Note the references in the card above to other products manufactured by E.S. Wells in Jersey City, NJ.  "Rough on Corns" was a foot remedy. Mother Swan's Worm Syrup supposedly remedied almost everything else--and if it didn't, Wells would be sure to come up with something that would. His advertising sometimes referred to these products as "blood purifiers." Others made these products, too. Few actually cured anything, but some made folks feel better due to ingredients like alcohol, cocaine, etc.

From the digital collections of East Carolina University comes this image of the back of one of Wells' advertising cards:

"E.S. Wells was 'Rough on Rats'" by Loren Gatch from Paper Money, (Society for Paper Money Collectors) Nov-Dec 2015 p.434-438, reproduces a picture of the manufactory for Rough on Rats in Jersey City NJ in addition to an excellent short biography of E. S. Wells:

(from "E.S.Wells Was Rough on Rats," above)
A parking lot marks the spot where Rough on Rats was manufactured
in this June 2015 Google Street View.
The unique building in the background of both pictures is Library Hall, now Library Hall Lofts. This building has a wonderful, multi-use history, best told by Jersey City, Past & Present.

The spectacular renovated interior of Library Hall Lofts is portrayed by these views from a Google Image Search:

Reproduced at many locations on the web, here's the advertising jingle for Rough on Rats composed by Jules Juniper with lyrics by W.A. Boston. Speaking as we were about stereotypes and cultural transmission, thankfully American attitudes towards animals have evolved from the stereotypical activities referenced by these lyrics.

another version of "Rough on Rats"
Steel City Ukuleles on YouTube

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The author of this blog has attempted to correctly apply terms and conditions to Content. These pages and associated images are being made available exclusively for use in non-commercial and non-profit study, scholarship, research, or teaching . Researchers are responsible for using these materials in accordance with Title 17 of the United States Code and any other applicable statutes. All trademarks, service marks, trade names, trade dress, product names and logos appearing on this blog are the property of their respective owners.. In the event that any Content infringes your rights or Content is not properly identified or acknowledged please email me. Thanks! 

This site includes historical materials that may contain negative stereotypes or language reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record, and do not represent or in any way reflect the personal views of the author of this blog, his ancestors, or his family.


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Jeff Diver said…
Thanks for commenting, MarkTaylor! It's good to know folks are finding these posts of interest. I hope you will have a chance to explore the whole Arnold Collection. It's been a great learning experience for me!
I liked your work and the way in which you have shared this article here about Rat Pest Control. It is a beneficial and helpful article for us. Thanks for sharing an article like this.