His stature as horror icon has kept Vincent Price a household name to this day and we're closing in fast on twenty years since he left us. I had no idea that Price's grandfather claimed what was potentially even wider stature throughout American households in the 19th Century!
I recently sold an 1893 back issue of Century Magazine and was surprised to learn from my customer that the item had been purchased as a movie related collectible. No, there isn't a feature on William K.L. Dickson or any other film pioneer, but a simple text based quarter-page ad on the back cover for Dr. Price's Delicious Flavoring Extracts.
The Dr. Price featured in the company name was one Dr. Vincent Clarence Price. Our Vincent's grandfather. I wanted to know more.Our Vincent's daughter, also Dr. Price's great-granddaughter, Victoria Price, wrote a biography of her film-acting father that was published in 1999. In it she references both the Price family history both as it was orally passed down to her as well as the Chicago Tribune's July 15, 1914 obituary of Dr. Vincent C. Price. Curiosity drove me to pay $3.95 to access the Tribune's obituary from their archives. (At least the New York Times gives away their pre-1923 public domain articles for free, loosen up Tribune!) The Tribune's headline alone helps reflect Dr. Price's stature: "Baking Powder Inventor Dies: Dr. Vincent C. Price, One of the Housewife's Best Friends, Passes Away."
The tales differ on a single important point. The Price family history states that when Dr. Price sold the company in the 1890's in order to enjoy his wealth and a life of leisure and luxury history took an unfortunate turn and wiped him out in the Panic of 1893. Funny, we were just talking about that yesterday. The Chicago Tribune obituary, in a line which the United Press picked up and distributed throughout the country in a much briefer nationally syndicated obituary, says that the late Doctor was "reputed to be a millionaire several times over."While the facts over this difference in fortune would have been extremely important to Doctor Price and his immediate heirs, perhaps what matters most today is the effect the family legend had on our Vincent, the actor, Vincent Leonard Price, Jr.
The story as told by Victoria Price holds that her grandfather, Vincent Leonard, Sr., possessed a strong interest in the Arts despite his being a student of science at Yale. Perhaps Vincent Leonard, Sr.'s love of English Literature and Poetry helped fuel his son's later passion towards a career in acting. The effect of Dr. Price's financial collapse upon Vincent Leonard, Sr. certainly held an influence over our Vincent's drive towards success on screen.The family legend has it that happy days were over for Vincent Leonard, Sr. once the Panic ate his father's fortune. He left Yale and wound up a businessman. Specifically Vincent Leonard, Sr. became part owner of the Pan Confection Company with his father, brother and others and rose to become "one of the most respected leaders of the American candy business" (Price 11). Victoria Price wrote that her father's "determination to make his career in the arts was heightened by his belief that his father's life had been irrevocably changed for the worse by his grandfather's money troubles"(12).
Digging up information about Dr. Price I was struck by the many references to his company in recipes of the 1890's and the decade that followed as the century turned. I don't know if these were good honest references by cooks who actually used his products or creative advertising courtesy of Dr. Price himself but when a recipe called for cream of tartar baking powder it was Dr. Price's brand name that was specified in the ingredients.
Vincent Clarence Price was born in Troy, New York on December 11, 1832 (hey, my birthday!). While working as a bookkeeper at a hotel he attended a medical college that he graduated in 1852. By 1853 the directory for the city of Troy lists Price as a wholesale druggist. In 1853 Dr. Price moved to Buffalo to study homeopathic medicine. He also met his future wife Harriet Elizabeth in Buffalo. 1855 was a big year for Price as he married and also graduated with a M.D. in pharmaceutical chemistry.
The story goes, and who knows but this sounds like a potential whopper of advertising that's too good to be true, that Dr. Price took to experimenting with his chemical formulas in order to come up with something that would allow his mother to better digest what were otherwise said to be the quite tasty biscuits that she baked. The cream of tartar baking powder which came out of this process not only raised the dough for Mom, but would eventually bank the big bucks for Dr. Price as well.
Both Dr. Price's 1914 obituary and an 1886 entry about him in Volume 3 of Alfred Theodore Andreas' History of Chicago, where Price settled his family and his business, refer to initial troubles in selling his baking powder. At the start Dr. Price only sold ounces per day of his patented goods. He took to door to door sales canvassing grocers and even private homes to build the business before beginning to advertise and making a success.
According to Andreas in 1876 Dr. Price's operated out of a building where they held six floors comprising 40,000 square feet as well as an additional four floors in a second building that took up another 10,000 square feet. The business which had begun with a half dozen employees claimed a payroll of over 200 by that time.
Any misfortune resulting from the 1893 Panic is overlooked in Dr. Price's obituary. So too is the fact that he sold the business during the 1890's as Victoria Price wrote. The two accounts don't totally jibe, but the basics are intact within all reports. I'm left to wonder how Vincent Leonard, Sr. managed to buy into a business with his father and brother if the family were totally broke, but at the same time if Dr. Price died a millionaire, where did the money go?
After going over all of this material and seeing all of the ads I'm left to believe that the name of Dr. Price was probably even better known to our grandparents and great-grandparents than his legendary grandson is to us today. On the other hand, I have no idea what Dr. Price looked like and I have no recollection of his baking powder playing an integral part in any episodes of The Brady Bunch.
Dr. Price might have been a household name, but his grandson is a pop culture icon. There seems to be more staying power in the latter no matter what percentage of the population lets you into their homes.
- Andreas, Alfred Theodore. History of Chicago. 3 vols. Chicago: The A.T. Andreas Company, Publishers, 1886.
- "Baking Powder Inventor Dies." Chicago Daily Tribune 15 July 1914.
- Price, Victoria. Vincent Price: A Daughter's Biography. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1999.
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