Bad Medicines: Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup

It’s hard to believe that there was once a time when products weren’t covered in labels listing all their ingredients in great detail. We are used to labels promising the absence of unhealthy chemicals. We are accustomed to labels warning when a product was packaged in the same facility as an allergen. Product safety is serious concern of manufacturers and customers. We, as a society, are growing increasingly aware of what is going into our bodies.

Label with an allergen warning

Before the creation of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1906, products did not carry ingredient labels. Regulations on medicines were especially lax, compared to today. In this blog, we begin exploring historic cases of “bad medicines” that were used by someone living or working either at Ferry Farm and Kenmore long before federal regulations came into play. Medical history is a profound example of how even well-intentioned people can make lasting and deadly mistakes.

People have lived at or worked on Ferry Farm for over 300 years. We have archaeologically excavated hundreds of thousands of artifacts from the 18th and 19th centuries. Among these artifacts are fragments of glass in all shapes and sizes. Many are bottle fragments- 47,926 of them to be exact. We can’t always determine the function of a bottle from the fragments found, but when we do find enough pieces to identify the bottle’s function, we excitedly begin research into its use.

One such artifact is a larger piece of a patent medicine bottle, one that was large enough to make out the embossed lettering on the side and identify its former ingredients. The bottle contained Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, first marketed in 1849. Its basic contents were morphine and alcohol so, I suppose, the soothing part of the name was indeed correct.

Fragment of Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup bottle

Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup bottle fragment excavated at George Washington’s Ferry farm.

Complete Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup bottle

Complete Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup bottle. Credit: P0mbal / Wikipedia

Today, Avinza® is a common morphine sulfate medication prescribed to patients suffering chronic pain. The FDA has covered its bases on the use of this medication, thoroughly describing how to take this medication without dying. One section very forcibly states:

“Swallow AVINZA whole. Do not cut, break, chew, crush, dissolve, snort, or inject AVINZA because this may cause you to overdose and die.” [1]

What is the recommended dosage for this medication, you ask? Around 60 mg of this morphine sulfate PER DAY for an adult. [2] Mrs. Winslow’s soothing syrup contained a whopping 65 mg of morphine PER OUNCE with slack rules on exactly how many drops to give to a teething infant.

You read that correctly folks – a teething infant.

Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup advertisement 1

Advertisement for Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. Credit: Museum of Health Care at Kingston

Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup advertisement 2

Advertisement for Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. Credit: The British Library

Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrups and other such 19th century medications led to the deaths of thousands of infants. Several children died from withdrawal symptoms after having taking the medication for an extended period of time, but most simply fell asleep never to wake up. Knowing little about drug reactions at the time, and due to the higher infant mortality rates in the 19th century, the cause of the deaths were often blamed on “crib death” (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or SIDS) or whatever ailment that was causing the child to be fussy enough to drug in the first place.

It wasn’t until 1905 when investigative journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams exposed the unregulated world of patent medicines in The Great American Fraud.

This publication attacked every type of patent medicine with testimonies from doctors and patients as well as scientific reports from trusted sources. In the section aptly titled “Baby Killers”, Adams detailed how various “soothing syrups” led to infant deaths from the mid-1850s to 1905.

Shockingly, Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup wasn’t the most deadly such syrup in terms of morphine content. Irreparable damage had been caused by all of the different morphine cocktails available on the market in the 1800s. As grieving parents began to realize what had actually happened to their children, these products were taken off the market.

With an enraged public and 509 pages of proof from Samuel Hopkins Adams, Congress enacted the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, creating the FDA to ensure the safety of American food and medicines.  Still, reports of child death caused by soothing syrups persisted until 1910.

[1] https://www.fda.gov/media/116920/download

[2] https://www.rxlist.com/avinza-drug.htm#dosage

“I Look Not On Things Beneath Me”: Our Snobbiest Artifact, a Wax Seal Stamp That Needs To Dial Back that Sass

‘Haughty’ is not a word used often to describe artifacts.  That is, of course, unless the artifact in question is a glass wax seal stamp with a kind of snooty message on it.  Of diminutive size (smaller than a dime) with a pretty little flower in the center it proclaims in reversed letters “I Look Not on Things Beneath Me”.

Kenmore Wax Seal Stamp 1

Wax seal stamp excavated by archaeologists at Historic Kenmore.

Seal Excavated at Kenmore 2

Closeup view of the wax seal through a digital microscope.

Drawing of Wax Seal Stamp

A drawing of the wax seal stamp with the text reversed so it is legible.

Initially thought to be a signet ring, archaeologists at Ferry Farm reexamined it and determined the itty bitty blue piece of glass is actually a wax seal stamp used to personalize letters.  This seems to be an odd choice of message for the recipient of a correspondence but who are we to judge?

Found at Kenmore, this pretty little thing likely dates to the late Victorian period and would have been worn by a woman, possibly at the end of a chatelaine.  Chatelaines were all the rage with Victorian women and consisted of a long chain worn around the neck with charms at the end, which could be tucked into one’s dress or belt.  These charms often had practical uses.  Common chatelaine charms included tiny scissors, cute vials, petite magnifying glasses, and minuscule mirrors.

Unfortunately, some fashionable lady lost this at Kenmore over a hundred years ago, possibly while wandering through the garden, drink in hand, and idly thinking of sending off a letter sealed with a snarky wax message reminding everyone that “I Look Not on Things Beneath Me.”

It’s a good thing that we archaeologists don’t take the same attitude.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor