Jeremy Winkworth, a chemist and employee in the quality division of what used to be The Upjohn Co. (now Pfizer Inc.), was given an unenviable task: to clean out the company’s record-retention warehouse. But as he dove into it, he discovered treasure: corporate history documents going back to 1889, old films and photos.
“I just decided at that point, you know, this looks really neat and we don’t want to lose this,” says the 66-year old, who worked at Upjohn and its successors for 37 years. “So I basically took all the boxes, put them inside my office in the quality building and started looking through things.”
Two things resulted from Winkworth’s curiosity: a website called Memories of The Upjohn Company (upjohn.net) and a growing personal collection of Upjohn memorabilia. The website now boasts 800 individual pages, 15,000 images and 20 movies. Winkworth’s personal collection ranges from original building signage to old ingredient bottles to the iconic alligator-skin briefcases that Upjohn sales representatives and executives carried.
What was the genesis of the website?
Through my work, I’ve always supported websites in one form or another, so I started scanning those documents and making them available to people inside the company through the website, just as, you know, here’s some interesting history about the site you work at. And then, probably about 2014, I decided that other people outside the company would like to see this stuff too so I created the upjohn.net website and started populating it with scans of photos of documents and information that seemed to be of interest to people. It’s been a hobby for me, but it’s something that I was really interested in.
What has the reaction been?
A lot of people were really interested in it. I do get contacted by former Upjohn employees around the world who see the website and go, “Hey, I remember that. Wow!” And even though Upjohn has now been gone for 26 years (it merged with Pharmacia in 1995), there are still places in the world where former Upjohn employees get together and celebrate working there. Upjohn was a classic, family-owned company, so they really cared about and made a lot of extra effort for their employees, and people really appreciated that and responded to it.
What kind of things are in your personal Upjohn memorabilia collection?
Well, obviously there’s a huge amount of paperwork left over from Upjohn, but those are perhaps a little bit less interesting than some of the Upjohn advertising items that they created. I have probably 300 to 400 items in the collection, something like that. I’ve found old Upjohn product bottles that go back to the 1890s at least, so that’s well over 100 years old. And I have these sample bottles that go back 100 years, to when the company was looking for new products. When Upjohn employees and salesmen went out into the world, they would collect samples of plants and other types of material, put them in those jars and send them back to Upjohn in the hopes that there’d be something in there that the company could use as a future medication.
Before the days of research labs, that was how pharmaceutical companies discovered new things. It was all done with what’s in nature. Those bottles still have samples in them. Seeds, I think.
It’s really entertaining to just to look back at some of those old products and how crazy they were to give people this kind of stuff based on what we know today. I’ve done presentations on the craziest products Upjohn ever made, using photos, and talked about here’s when they made it, here’s what happened when they made it, and in some cases how hazardous it was to actually take this product.
Are you still actively looking for Upjohn memorabilia?
Yes, I go to estate sales and check eBay once a day. A lot of times former Upjohn employees will call me and say, ‘Come get this stuff.’ For some reason there’s less of it now than there used to be. The Upjohn Co. has now been gone for 26 years, and I think the number of Upjohn collectors and people interested in Upjohn items is getting smaller as former Upjohn employees get older and eventually die.
There’s a few of us locals who collect Upjohn items, so, if people give me items and I don’t have space for them, I just email the other collectors and say, “Hey, do you want to include these in your collection?” Our goal is, firstly, not to lose anything Upjohn. And, secondly, long term we would like to find someplace in the Kalamazoo area to permanently display all these Upjohn items so it’ll always be something that the people of the community can look at and remember the days of The Upjohn Co.
How do you identify the items you find?
If it’s a product, a lot of times I can look in an old product catalog on the website or just Google it. It’s amazing what’s out there in terms of information about current and old products. Also, I know enough former Upjohn employees (that) I can send an email to one or two of them that I think might know and say, “Hey, do you recognize this?” Also, I post on the “Vanished Kalamazoo” Facebook page and say, “Hey, anybody know anything about this?”
I did that with the Upjohn sign I have (seen in the picture) to see if anyone could remember where it was. Nobody was quite sure, but the consensus was that it was probably out at the Upjohn Farms on Gull Road.
Does that worry you, that people might forget about Upjohn?
Well, I think it’s natural for the name to be forgotten over time, but I think it helps that in today’s world it’s very, very easy with the internet to continue to make that kind of material and information available to people. There’s just a tremendous amount of information that somehow came my way. I just dug it out and put it all on a website.
— Interview by Marie Lee edited for length and clarity