In medieval Europe, apothecaries and alchemists appealed to their ailing customers by displaying bottles in their windows, each filled with a different preparation of dried herbs steeped in liquid. In 18th-century England, more than 200 cure-all elixirs and serums, many with their own registered brand names, were being sold. Indeed, the British market was flooded with patent and proprietary medicines, remedies with secret formulas known only to their manufacturers, who packaged their “amazing cures” in distinctive medicine bottles.
Turlington’s Balsam of Life is among the earliest known of these healing elixirs. A 1747 booklet on the product claims that balsam, “gently infuses its kindly Influence into those Parts that are most in Disorder.” After 1754, Turlington’s remedy came in a trademark bottle with a short, thick neck and stepped sides that widened in the middle and narrowed at the base. It’s believed that Turlington’s made it to America during the Revolutionary War, as the British soldiers would carry it in their knapsacks.
At the time, the American colonists only knew of five other British cure-alls: Bateman’s Pectoral Drops, Betton’s British Oil, Godfrey’s Cordial, Dalby’s Carminative, and Steer’s Opodeldoc. Dalby’s Carminative asserted it “allow’d to be the best thing that can be for ye Flux,” also known as dysentery. Steer’s Opodeldoc, a balm for the skin, was billed as “a speedy and certain cure” for bruises, sprains, burns, cuts, frostbite, headaches, and insect bites.
In the early days of the United States, Dr. Thomas William Dyott of Philadephia grew frustrated with the poor quality of American-made medicine bottles, so he established his own glassworks, which churned out huge quantities of vessels between 1818 and 1838. By the middle of the 19th century, the country had a thriving proprietary medicine market of its own, producing bottles of all shapes—cylindrical, oval, rectangular, and paneled—often labeled with poetic claims of about the magical powers the remedies contained.
American medicine entrepreneurs included Perry Davis, who capitalized on the 1849 cholera epidemic by selling his Pain-Killer. Lydia E. Pinkham became a famous face thanks to her portrait on her Vegetable Compound for Female Weakness. And brothers Andral and Jonas Kilmer sold their Swamp Root kidney and liver medicine out of an eight-story building in Binghamton, New York.
The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company, founded in 1881 by John E. “Doc” Healy, “Texas Charlie” F. Bigelow, and “Nevada Ned” Oliver, took their cure-all pitch on the road. Based in New Haven, Connecticut, the company hired hundreds of Native Americans, said to be of the Kickapoo tribe, to tour America and Europe, teaching “Indian ways” and peddling its medicines.
More and more remedy-makers began to put on their own elaborate medicine shows, like Big Sensation Medicine Company and Hamlin Wizard Oil of Chicago, which came to town with a ci...
In fact, medicine shows were major events in the towns they visited. With live skits, music, juggling, acrobatics, feats of magic, sword swallowing, and ventriloquism, it was the most excitement most places would see for months. Some shows even traveled with their own flea circus or sideshow-freak acts. Stores would close, children were allowed to skip school, and residents would don their Sunday best.
Of course, the main event was always the pitch for bottled treatments such as Professor Low’s Liniment & Worm Syrup, Dalley’s Magical Pain Extractor, Dr. Kilmer’s Swamproot, Hood’s Sarsaparilla, Wistar’s Balsam of Wild Cherry, Dr. King’s New Discovery, Edgar’s Cathartic Confection, and Schenck’s Mandrake Pills.
Many travelling “doctors” with dubious credentials knew how to create the illusion that such products worked. They would rub an arthritic’s afflicted arm or foot until the pain seemed to dull. They understood that washing out earwax improved anyone’s hearing. Some even distributed pills filled with long pieces of string so the taker would appear to expel tapeworms in their stool. Often, the medicine company would place a shill in the audience, who would pretend to be sick and claim the treatment had worked a miracle. Do-it-yourself shows would make medicines on the spot.
Chinese workers building the Transcontinental Railroad brought the concept of “snake oil” to America in the 1860s. They shared their bottles of oil from Chinese water snakes, which actually has the ability to calm sore muscles thanks to its abundance of Omega-3 fatty acids. Medicine-show hucksters latched on to this idea, peddling petroleum-jelly-based products with almost no snake oil in them, and claiming these salves could cure everything from measles to typhoid fever.
Popular lore held that daring snake wranglers, like a Pennsylvania man named John Geer, would slaughter rattlesnakes and remove the oil from their bodies to make these incredible oinments. The most famous of these, a cowboy named Clark Stanley, known as The Rattlesnake King, pushed his Snake Oil Liniment. Crowds like those who attended the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago would be captivated as Stanley, in colorful Western dress, would kill rattlesnakes and process their bodies into his balm.
Stanley asserted that he got the secret formula from a Moki Pueblo Indian medicine man—some Native Americans are said to have treated rheumatism with rattlesnake grease. However, when the feds seized an order of Snake Oil Liniment in 1917, it was found to be mineral oil with 1 percent fatty oil (possibly from cattle), red pepper that warms the skin, and perhaps traces of medicine-smelling turpentine or camphor. Clark had many imitators, including Miller’s Antiseptic Oil and Lincoln Oil.
As people became more and more suspicious of “snake-oil salesmen,” proprietors began to put their signatures, and later their images, on their bottles, which was taken as their personal guarantees of a product. The ailing who wanted to believe in these cures felt that a man with his name and face on a product could not be ashamed of it.
Some of these cures were based on recipes or “receipts” of home remedies, which were sincerely believed to be effective treatments. These included popular modern herbal remedies like chamomile, St. John’s wort, goldenseal, and echinacea, then called snake root. A few legitimate medicines like Doan’s Pills, Geritol, and Bayer Aspirin got their start this way. Dr. Pepper’s Tonic, eventually dismissed as a blood purifier, became the popular soft drink.
Other peddlers started out in the entertainment business, like former preacher Fletcher Sutherland, whose seven daughters performed music at the 1881 Atlanta Exposition and in Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth. Sutherland realized that his daughter’s extremely long tresses, collectively measuring 37 feet, were their greatest appeal, and soon started selling the Seven Sutherland Sisters Hair Grower. This product turned the Sutherlands into a millionaire family, but they blew their money on a posh lifestyle that included personal maids to brush each sister’s hair.
Another type of cure-all elixir known as “bitters,” grew in popularity in the post-Civil War era. These were a particular form of proprietary medicine, made of more than 50 percent alcohol; a bitter substance such as angostura, quassia, or orange rind; and a flavoring element like juniper, cinnamon, caraway, chamomile, or cloves. Sold in special bitters bottles, these remedies grew in popularity during the temperance movement, giving people an excuse to drink for medicinal reasons.
Toward the end of the century, the American public, fed up with being scammed by these peddlers, took to campaigning against what Collier’s magazine dubbed, in 1905, “The Great American Fraud.” Families were also concerned about the effects of alcohol and narcotics like opium on their children. Around the same time, the Germ Theory of Disease, validated by the 19th-century research of Louise Pasteur and Robert Koch, was becoming widely accepted in the practice of medicine. All of this eventually led to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1907.
This new law knocked many products off the market, as manufacturers were forced to change the advertisements or ingredients. But some proprietary medicines lived on, sold through mail-order companies, drug stores, and traveling salesmen. Dr. Worden’s Female Pills claimed to help “Female Diseases and Troubles, Peculiar to the Sex and Women’s Delicate System.” Vin Vitae, a “tonic stimulant,” contained port wine and coca leaves, the base of cocaine. Princess Brand Hair Restorer and Bust Developer was described as harmless and came with a money-back guarantee. Salesmen like “Snake-Oil Johnnie” McMahon pushed these remedies well into the ’20s.
Antique medicinal bottles from between 1810 and the Civil War tend to have pontiled bases; applied, rolled, flared, or sheared finishes; usually true two-piece key-and-hinge molds; predominantly rectangular, round, and square shapes; and crude glassmaking imperfections like whittle marks, bubbles, uneven tone, or an orange-peel surface. The first American-made bottle on record featuring proprietary embossing is a Dr. Robertson’s Family Medicine container from 1809.
Eventually, as thousand of products were produced, bottles of proprietary medicines and bitters came in every shape, size, and color imaginable. Bitters bottles tended to come in amber, aquamarine, clear, and green, and some had distinctive shapes like cabins, pigs, or Indian princesses. Some antique medicine bottles are embossed with the name and the city of the pharmacy or druggist it came from—these tend to be cylindrical, rectangular, square, or oval. Ointments, salves, and balm came in shorter, wide-mouth bottles, also known as jars.
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