The J.R. Watkins Medical Company was founded in Plainview, Minnesota by Joseph R. Watkins in 1868 . Watkins started his company after acquiring the patent for Dr. Ward's Vegetable Anodyne Liniment (later renamed "Watkin's Red Liniment"). The main ingredients of "Watkin's Red Liniment" were camphor, from an Asian evergreen related to the cinnamon tree, extract of capsicum (from red peppers), turpentine oil and other botanicals. Watkins mixed his liniment in his kitchen.

In 1885, Watkins moved 25 miles south to Winona, Minnesota and developed a network of door-to-door salesmen to sell his liniment. Sometime around 1895, in addition to his liniment, Watkins began to sell the spices, vanilla, black pepper and cinnamon. These products were closely related to the ingredients of his basic product and had similar sources of supply. Watkin's network of door-to-door salesmen is the first recorded network marketing endeavor. At the time of his death in 1911, Watkins had more than 2,500 people selling his liniment and species. The company was renamed, "Watkins Products." In 1912, shortly after the death of its founder, the company headquarters was relocated to an office building near the banks of the Mississippi River where it remained at the time of this writing in 1999.

In 1999, Watkins Products had 80,000 so-called "Independent Associates" throughout the United States and Canada and sold a wide range of food and home products, including both the original "Watkin's Liniment", as well as the spices of the original product line.