By JEANNIE WILEY WOLF
TIFFIN — The J.J. Fleck Co. has brought of a rainbow of color to the Easter season for more than 100 years.
The firm was founded by Jacob J. Fleck, a pharmacist in Tiffin who manufactured and sold such items as Fleck’s Liver and Blood Pills, Fleck’s Saponaceous Tooth Powder, Positive Corn Cure and Fleck’s Wild Cherry Phosphate Chewing Gum.
He also developed packaged dyes for Easter eggs.
“The Fleck egg dyes are so colorful, and kids today that don’t dye Easter eggs with their families are missing out on a lot of good memories to hold onto in years to come,” said Tonia Hoffert, director of the Seneca County Museum.
“I remember as a child, we would dye dozens of eggs and have egg hunts with my grandparents and other family members,” she said. “Those are some of the memories that I hold onto, since a lot of the older generations are now gone.”
A display in the museum’s Fort Ball Room focuses on the life and products of Fleck. The exhibit features many items straight from his drugstore and business, including his mortar and pestle, shipping box stencils, the family coverlet, product display boxes and testimonial letters from satisfied customers.
Mark Steinmetz of Tiffin is a volunteer at the museum. He’s also Fleck’s great-nephew, and has portrayed his relative for living history programs. Many items from his personal collection are included in the museum’s display.
“I’ve been collecting Fleck items for about 40 years and continue to look for things to add to my collection,” he said in an email.
“I cherish J.J. Fleck’s mortar and pestle, because these were Fleck’s tools of the trade that he actually used with his own hands,” Steinmetz said. “They are unique, one-of-a-kind items. But I also love all of the advertising posters and the labels on the stock food containers and egg dye packets, because they’re so colorful and they’re like pieces of art.”
Steinmetz said Jacob Fleck was born in Findlay in 1853. He was the eldest son of Joseph and Barbara Fleck, natives of Germany who came to the United States in 1847.
Fleck attended school in town and helped out in his parents’ grocery store. He developed an interest in pharmacy and, at age 17, began working at one of the local drugstores.
According to Steinmetz, Fleck spent two years studying at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, then returned home and resumed his old job. The store’s owner, William Haven, accepted him as a full-fledged partner in 1877.
Fleck also invested in drugstores to Gilboa, Dunkirk and McComb.
Steinmetz said Fleck compounded his own medicines instead of relying on patent medicines that contained a lot of alcohol. Because agriculture played such a significant role in the local economy, Fleck started making medications for farm animals, including worm powder for horses and a dietary supplement for chickens. He also printed “Fleck Facts” that offered information and instructions for the product’s use.
Fleck moved to Tiffin in 1883 and opened his first drugstore at the corner at East Perry and South Washington streets. He began selling egg dyes in 1889.
“He made up fabric dyes in barrels and noticed that sales always increased in the spring, as women were buying them to dye Easter eggs,” said Steinmetz.
At first, the dye powder was imported from Germany. The first packets contained six primary colors and sold for 5 cents.
“He’d wrap them in the little pieces of tissue paper and then put them in an envelope,” Steinmetz said.
“One thing that can be said about the dyes, they were so vibrant and had such rich colors. It was a high-quality product.”
Steinmetz dyed eggs for the museum’s exhibit using some 40-year-old Fleck egg dye powders.
“They’re just as vivid as if I’d bought it yesterday,” Steinmetz said.
Originally, Fleck scooped the dyes out of barrels and prepared the packets when customers came into the store. He later realized that selling prepackaged dye kits would save time.
The kits were eventually sold throughout the United States and even overseas.
It was a small-town operation with a second-floor assembly line, said Steinmetz. Fleck employed women who would start working at packaging the dyes in the fall in preparation for Easter.
“You could always tell when they worked with the red dye, because there would be red footprints in the snow,” he said.
In later years, the company boxed several dye colors along with a wire dipper, picture decals, trims and instructions.
In addition to being a savvy businessman, Fleck was also active in the community. He and four others formed the Tiffin Natural Gas Co., and he developed a patent for a blade sharpening device. He also served as director of Commercial National Bank and a board member of Tiffin Savings Bank, director of Citizen Building Association, the Gray and White Co., and the Tiffin Consolidated Telephone Co. Fleck was one of the co-founders and an honorary life member of the Ohio State Pharmaceutical Association.
Fleck and his wife, Clara, had 10 children. When Fleck died in 1940 at the age of 86, three of his children took over the business.
In 1971, Flecks became the second-largest manufacturer of egg dyes in the United States when the company purchased the Chick-Chick egg dye line. New boxes carried a combination of the names, “Fleck’s Chick-Chick.” The company was second only to Paas in sales.
The factory closed in 1997.
Steinmetz started collecting Tiffin memorabilia over 45 years ago. As he added to his collection, he studied the history behind each item and learned more about the city.
“When I finally discovered the wide variety of great Fleck items from Tiffin — and then to learn that I was related to J.J. Fleck — that brought about more of a personal emphasis which separated those Tiffin items from all of my other categories of Tiffin collectibles,” he said.
A few of the later egg dye kits on display are from Hoffert’s personal collection. She’s been collecting Tiffin and Seneca County items since 1985.
The display will be available for viewing at the museum, 28 Clay St., through the Heritage Festival in September. Hours are 1-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and noon to 4 p.m. Saturdays.