Wilber Gibbs, Bellingham's supreme pitchman

Chronic indigestion led to his ultimate success: Jo-To

During the early 1920s, the Jo-To girls gave out promotional samples of Wilber Gibbs’ stomach-ache medicine.

    Wilber Gibbs was a Bellingham jeweler, optician, pawnbroker and music store proprietor. The daily stress of running so many enterprises ruined his digestion, but the remedy he devised to settle his sour stomach launched his most successful venture.
   Born Oct. 26, 1862, in Benson Village, Vt., Gibbs enlisted in the army in 1880 and served five years. After the military, Gibbs worked as a rural-mail carrier in Wyoming for a spell before roaming Colorado and Montana as a barber to “cowboys and miners.” He married Addie in 1889.
   Mr. and Mrs. Gibbs moved to Bellingham in 1903 and started a modest jewelry store at 304 W. Holly. They were nearly broke when, in 1904, the Bellingham Realty Co. financed construction of a new building across W. Holly from the Gibbs’ jewelry store. Designed by local architect Frank C. Burns, the wood-frame “White House Building” had three stories with a 100 foot street frontage and large basement. The ground floor had six storefronts, the second floor held offices, and the top floor was a residential hotel.
   Upon completion, the White House became the Gibbs’ base of operations. Not only did the Gibbses relocate their jewelry store to the new building, they moved into one of its upstairs apartments. Addie became manager of the hotel, which had 53 rooms, “including nine bathrooms.” Wilber “made up his mind that he would succeed” and, to better his odds, diversified.
   Gibbs started a pawnshop in the White House, to which he gave the ostentatious name of “Chicago Loan Bank.” He expanded his jewelry business to include an optometry department that introduced bifocals to patrons who had struggled, as his ads stated, with “two pairs of glasses all through life.”
   Gibbs wasn’t done yet. He opened a music store, stocking violins, mandolins, guitars, accordions, even a few organs and pianos in the basement, plus a huge selection of 25-cent sheet music. In addition, Gibbs carried the Lyra Graphaphone, which in 1906 was “the very latest and up-to-date Graphaphone that plays both Edison and Columbia cylinder records.”
   By 1910, Gibbs was also manufacturing jewelry at the back of his store, even starting a metal-plating factory in the White House’s basement. He could create “anything from a stick-pin to a loving cup,” making ornamental pieces plated in silver, bronze, brass, or gold. The Gibbs’ empire of small businesses took up more than half the White House storefronts, from 317 W. Holly and 315 W. Holly up to 313 W. Holly.
   Any of these pursuits would’ve been plenty for most folks, but Wilber Gibbs tried to keep them all going simultaneously. Described as a “versatile merchant” who was “developing into an octopus for business,” Wilber was depicted as juggling “a thousand and one little odd jobs about his store.”
   Put another way, a local newspaper claimed “Mr. Gibbs does not fish or hunt, roller skate or dance” because he spent “the biggest part of his time looking after his business.” The pace began to take a toll on Gibbs’ health. He was “a great sufferer from stomach trouble.”
   A “portly man,” Gibbs developed a home remedy “after years of study and experiment” to quell his tummy tempest. As he later explained, he “had succeeded in blending the beneficial ingredients into a compound which reduced the most rebellious digestive apparatus into immediate subjection.”
   Addie decided the couple should slow down. In late 1910, the Gibbs sold their lease and furnishings in the White House Hotel to Eleazer and Etta Sherwood. Selling everything except his jewelry and optometry businesses, Wilber moved his store uptown to the new Bellingham National Bank Building in 1913.
   A year later, Gibbs was on a business trip aboard the Shasta Limited headed for “the City of the Golden Gate” and was conversing with other business travelers when a porter called out that lunch was being served. Gibbs stood up to head for the dining car, but one by one his companions politely excused themselves from joining him, asserting they’d prefer not to dine as all had stomach issues. Gibbs offered each man a pre-emptive dose of his medication and promised them their troubles were over. After a large meal together, all the men agreed that Gibbs’ cure for “stomach trouble and constipation” had worked wonders and encouraged him to put it on the market.

The White House Building on W. Holly St., seen here about 1910, served as home to Wilber Gibb’s numerous small businesses. Gibb’s wife ran the upstairs hotel.

By 1919, Gibbs, then 57, had apparently mulled over the advice and decided to wholesale “Jo-To,” the brand name he gave his remedy. Jo-To, Gibbs explained, was a Japanese word meaning superior or better.
   With business partners Henry Jukes, cashier at Bellingham National Bank, and attorney Glenn Madison, Gibbs formed the Bellingham Chemical Co., “the exclusive makers of Jo-To.” In fact, Jo-To was the company’s only product. A factory was established in the basement of the Bellingham National Bank Building where small boxes and sample-envelopes were filled by a newly hired staff.
   Gibbs’ enthusiasm for marketing, more than any other factor, led to the quick success of Jo-To. A pep squad of young ladies dressed in nurse-like Jo-To uniforms were deployed into downtown Bellingham to give out free samples. Ambassadors of gastro-intestinal comfort, the Jo-To girls graciously presented pedestrians and trolley-jumpers with an envelope containing “The Secret to the Family’s Good Health.”
   It was an era when many people were profoundly concerned with “a natural and regular action of the bowels.” Everything from bad breath and the common cold to a personal lack of ambition were traced back to “undigested food.” Laxatives were taken regularly as preventative medicine.
   Jo-To entered a crowded field of similar cures. There was Dr. Edwards’ Olive Tablets that had “the joyful cry of thousands” as testimony to their effectiveness. California Syrup of Figs promised “a thorough inside cleansing.” And Pape’s Dispepsin was the answer to the question: “Do some foods you eat hit back— taste good but work badly; ferment into stubborn lumps and cause a sick, sour, gassy stomach?”
   Beyond being a white powder that was “pure as mountain snow,” what exactly was in Jo-To remains a mystery. Original Jo-To labels and boxes still exist, but drug manufacturers were not yet required to list their products’ ingredients. Gordon Tweit, Fairhaven pharmacist and community historian, believes the active ingredient was as mundane as sodium bicarbonate.
   Whatever it was, Jo-To was guaranteed to relieve a “distressed stomach in two minutes.” The instructions were simple: “Dissolve a heaping teaspoonful in a glass of hot water, as hot as can be conveniently taken, and if relief is not obtained in a short time the dose should be repeated.”
   In February 1920, the Bellingham Chemical Co. closed a distribution deal with Owl Drug Co., the large Los Angeles-based pharmaceutical firm. Besides an extensive network of associated retail stores in 12 states, Owl Drug was the largest wholesaler of patient medicines in the West. It was a triumph for Gibbs and soon production was at “utmost capacity.”
   Bellingham’s druggists gladly gave Jo-To a vaunted front-window display. “Home products,” items manufactured locally, could always count on community-wide support from both merchants and shoppers. Soda fountains were provided an attractive decanter complete with full “trial supply” of Jo-To. By May 1920, one could even have their Jo-To served already mixed “at all soda fountains” in Bellingham.
   Ads were placed in newspapers across the country and in Canada urging readers to send for their complimentary dose of Jo-To. Outgoing Jo-To samples deluged the post office in the Federal Building on Magnolia Street where one postal clerk, Frank N. York, was so impressed by these bulk mailings that he joined the company.
   With sales continuing to grow, Gibbs kept the “Citizens of Bellingham” updated with billboards, nailed to the sides of delivery trucks, announcing each large shipment of Jo-To. Likewise, outbound boxcars loaded with barrels of Jo-To were draped with banners celebrating Bellingham Chemical’s continued success.
   After only two years in production, Jo-To proved so profitable that Gibbs sold his jewelry store. He would dedicate all his time, indeed the rest of his life, to relieving distressed stomachs.

Wilber Gibbs with a pile of Jo-To powder on his dining room table, c. 1919. He filled the retail boxes by hand at home before starting a Jo-To factory in the basement of the Bellingham National Bank Building.

At sixty years old, Wilber Gibbs finally had a sense of financial security. He and Addie had a beautiful new house built at 1215 E. Victor St. Craftsman in design, the Gibbs’ new home was full of light and had ten rooms, including a 15-foot by 36-foot living room that extended the full depth of the residence. It was the house that Jo-To built. But Wilber would not get to enjoy it for long. Less than a year after moving in, Wilber Gibbs died there on Jan. 30, 1923.
   As Jo-To Inc., Mr. Gibbs’ partners tried to carry on the business without him and moved the factory to 203 E. Chestnut. Yet, without Wilber’s marketing energy Jo-To sales steadily shrank and the company folded in 1927. That same year, on Jan. 9, the White House Building on W. Holly was destroyed by fire. There’s been an empty lot there ever since.

Related Stories