The Story of Kansas

Mentholatum inventor Hyde’s influence still felt in Wichita 125 years later

The Mentholatum Co. building photographed in 1928 at the corner of Douglas and Cleveland
The Mentholatum Co. building photographed in 1928 at the corner of Douglas and Cleveland

Mentholatum, that aromatic ointment of menthol and camphor sold in the little green jars, was invented 125 years ago in a Wichita kitchen.

Mothers everywhere used the salve for colds, rubbing it on their children’s chests and noses.

“It was the ‘Little Nurse for Little Ills’ around our house when I was growing up,” said Eric Cale, director of the Wichita/Sedgwick County Historical Museum. “Any cold symptom that presented itself, the little green bottle came out.”

But what made A.A. Hyde, the man who invented it on his kitchen stove in Wichita, different from most businessmen is that he was generous with his salary. And although his money went to charitable organizations around the world, he was most generous to Wichita.

His name is still found on a magnet elementary school, a camp and a park.

Nearly eight decades after his death, his name and his family’s charitable investments are also still influencing Wichita.

“This was a man of not great wealth,” said his grandson, John Hyde, of Massachusetts. “When he died his estate was valued at $1 or $2 million. So he was a man of not great wealth but of great generosity.”

“He believed very strongly that if you died with inherited wealth, you would die disgraced,” he said.

Still, having any kind of money during the Great Depression was an asset. Hyde used his influence to build the Wichita community.

In 1885, when the first Young Men’s Christian Association meeting was held in Wichita, it was spearheaded by A.A. Hyde. Later, he was instrumental in establishing a Young Women’s Christian Association in Wichita and in developing the Y’s Camp Hyde and the Hutcherson Branch YMCA, Wichita’s first Y built for African-Americans.

In 1907, when national YMCA leaders met in Colorado to plan where they would build a permanent summer facility in the Rocky Mountains, three entrepreneurs stepped forward – John D. Rockefeller, W.C. Coleman of the Coleman Co. in Wichita, and Hyde. The summer retreat still operates in Estes Park, Colo., as the YMCA of the Rockies.

Other works Hyde contributed to included the Wichita Children’s Home, and Wesley Hospital and Nurses Training School. He helped develop Maple Grove Cemetery on North Hillside.

At the Wichita Public Library, the Hyde Foundation and the Hyde family contribute annual grants and an endowment to help fund the library’s local history department and outreach.

Hyde’s background

Hyde was born in 1848 in Lee, Mass. He came to Kansas in 1865, working first as a bookkeeper in a Leavenworth bank.

In 1872, he came to Wichita and helped open the Wichita Savings Bank. He then moved to the Farmers and Merchants Bank, which later became the First National Bank of Wichita.

By the late 1880s, through buying land and investing, Hyde had become one of the city’s wealthiest men. But when Wichita’s economy went bust, Hyde tumbled to $10,000 in debt.

“A.A. Hyde’s legacy is a worldwide legacy,” Cale said. “He basically made and gave away two fortunes in his life.”

He was not down for long. With his brother-in-law and a few other investors, Hyde began a toilet soap business.

By 1890, he had bought out his partners and begun experimenting with a menthol-based salve.

The Mentholatum business, known as the “Little Nurse for Little Ills,” prospered by the turn of the 20th century.

“Mr. Hyde supported church missionaries working overseas and generously donated Mentholatum Ointment to this cause. This is how the product gained worldwide acceptance, particularly in East Asia and Latin America,” according to a news release from the Mentholatum Co.

In 1906, the Mentholatum Co. building was built at the northeast corner of Cleveland and Douglas, where the Spice Merchant is today. The company’s manufacturing plant was moved to Buffalo, N.Y., in the 1920s.

Hyde died in 1935.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

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