Victorian and Edwardian era chemists, 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.
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 Australia the majority of medicines and cures were imported from England. Gradually Australian entrepreneurs, con men and genuine chemists started to produce and sell locally made preparations, lotions and cures. By the middle of the 19th century, Australia had a domestic chemist service that included local and imported products with a thriving proprietary medicine market of its own.
American medicine entrepreneurs included Perry Davis, who capitalized on the 1849 cholera epidemic by selling his Pain-Killer. This cure was exported to Australia from the 1850’s onwards, as was Andral and Jonas Kilmer Swamp Root kidney and liver medicine.
The unregulated nature of the chemist based cure-all industry mean’t that credibility of all cures were brought into question as fakes were uncovered. 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 cure-alls some 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.
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 and these remedies grew in popularity during the temperance movement, giving people an excuse to drink for medicinal reasons.
Toward the end of the 1890’s the public and doctors became 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 which was replicated in most Western countries within a few years.
This new law knocked many products off the market, as manufacturers were forced to change the claims in advertising and even the ingredients. But some proprietary medicines lived on, sold through mail-order companies, drug stores, and traveling salesmen.
Eventually, as thousand of products were produced, bottles of proprietary medicines and bitters came in every shape, size, and color imaginable. Many were produced in cobalt blue glass bottles when they represented poisons, and these may have also stated “poison” on the embossing as well as having rough surface cross hatching designs on the body of the bottle.
The reason for the ribbed or cross-hatched design was two-fold. Firstly many people were illiterate and could not read so the colour and cross-hatch design visually informed them they were handling a poison. Likewise at night before electricity a person could feel the cross-hatching and know it was a poison they had grabbed in the darkness and so prevent unintentional poisoning.
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 “pots and “potlids” of a ceramic swuare or circular design with a lid and a base.
Western Australia has produced a significant group of embossed chemist bottles and “quack” cures from the various wholesale pharmaceutical and suburban chemists in our past. These are very collectable as is the advertising ephemera that these businesses produced.
There is also a number of Western Australian potlids to be collected from local producers.