‘Now With No Morphine!’:  A Look at Patent Medicine Bottles Donated to Ferry Farm

Recently, George Washington’s Ferry Farm received a generous donation of bottles from the Mary Ball Washington Museum and Library.  For the most part they date from the late 19th to early 20th century and therefore have no connection to the Washingtons.  However, our Archaeology Department can certainly use them for a type collection.  A type collection is a teaching tool that will employ these bottles, known as an assemblage, to compare with bottle sherds we excavate from the field.  As such, we needed to do a thorough analysis of these bottles and it turns out a sizable portion of them are what we would call ‘patent medicines’.

Patent Medicine Bottles

Patent medicines have been around for a long time but reached the height of their popularity in the 19th century.  The term is a bit of a misnomer because it wasn’t the formula of the medicine that was patented but rather just the medicine’s name.  By doing this the manufacturer was not obligated to disclose the ingredients of their potions and as such could mix anything together and call it ‘medicine’.  Subsequently, many of these concoctions included ingredients designed to make you feel better, even if they did not actual cure any of your ailments.  This included, but was not limited to, copious quantities of alcohol, laudanum, cocaine, heroin, morphine, ether, chloroform, opium, etc.  In some cases, the medicines, particularly creams and ointments, contained zero active ingredients but also included a substance to make you feel a physical healing sensation. For example, capsaicin, eucalyptus, camphor, or menthol in these medicines could make your skin feel hot, cold, or tingly.

Patent medicine manufacturers emphasized the consumer’s ability to take their health into their own hands since their products could be purchased without a prescription.  Their advertisements vilified traditional doctors, who they portrayed as agents of death.  Often marketed as cure alls, some purported to treat dozens of ailments ranging from headaches to warts.  The patent medicine propaganda machine was strong, often trumpeting false testimonials from people miraculously cured by them and millions of bottles of quack medicine were sold in the 19th century.  Eventually, concern mounted over the addictive quality of many of these medicines, bolstered by a mounting death count attributed to the unregulated concoctions. Many of the deaths were unfortunately children.

One good example of a highly dangerous patent medicine was Porter’s Pain King.  It claimed to relieve colds, nervous and sick headache, rheumatic and neuralgic pains, toothache, backache, sprains, bruises and burns.  Containing a whopping 63 percent alcohol (much more than tequila) mixed with ether (a powerful anesthetic which is even more intoxicating than alcohol), it had dosages for adults, children, and animals.  The manufacturer also recommended bathing in it, which was potentially an even worse idea than ingesting this toxic brew.  Ether is really good at rendering people unconscious when inhaled and the fumes are more potent and unstable when heated by hot water.  Although, you wouldn’t feel any pain after taking Porter’s Pain King, it probably wasn’t worth the risk of addiction and death.  To combat the rampant patent medicine industry the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act was passed, which eventually led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  The act forced patent medicine makers to reveal their active ingredients and ensure that they actually contained what was advertised. It proved the downfall of many and we can all be grateful for that.

BUT back to our own bottles!  We selected a few of the most interesting ones and have described them below along with a brief history of each.[1]

 Sharp and Dohme White Pine Compound Syrup

Upon looking at this bottle, you may notice the reassuring words “without morphine”. Though today we might hope this would go without saying, by the time of the Civil War, morphine was an extremely popular pain-killer. Unfortunately, morphine was as addictive as it was effective and morphine addictions were common. Said one writer, “As an allayer of pain it is king, but as a destroyer of men, mentally, morally, and physically, it is as the traitor, pretending to be friendly, but at the same time slowly dragging its victim to death.”[2]

Sharp and Dohme White Pine Compound Syrup

The morphine epidemic, or morphinism, as it was called at the time, was a growing problem in the early 20th century. Recognizing the dangers of morphine, pharmaceutical companies, like Sharp and Dohme, began turning to other alternatives, like chloroform and heroin.[3] These were just as effective at numbing pain, but supposedly less habit forming than morphine (they weren’t).[4] Like in this bottle, the mixing of herbs, alcohol, and opiates or chloroform was fairly common in patent medicines.  As a side note, ingesting chloroform is an absolutely awful idea and you should never do it.

Wine of Cardui

Medicines advertising the treatment of ‘female complaints’ became their own sub-category of patent medicine. In the late 19th and early 20th century, women’s tonics, such as Wine of Cardui and Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound were extremely popular solutions to all manner of ‘womanly troubles’. At this time, discussion of women’s health issues such as menstruation and childbirth were fairly taboo so many women turned to patent medicines for help.[5] These tonics advertised curing everything from menstrual pain to acting as a general restorative for ‘delicate’ women.[6] Discussions of rampant sexism of the marketing aside, Wine of Cardui was over 50% potassium carbonate, 16% salt, and 20% alcohol,[7] with alcohol being its most potent active ingredient. Women’s tonics and medicines were also a socially acceptable way for women to consume alcohol. At the time, there was a significant stigma associated with women drinking alcohol recreationally, but there was no stigma with drinking alcoholic tonics to aid her womanly issues.[8] Unfortunately, many of these remedies also contained powerful opiates which led many to become unknowingly addicted.

Mount Vernon Whiskey

During Prohibition, patent medicines experienced a revival of sorts. One of the only legal ways to obtain alcohol during Prohibition was through a prescription. During this time, the government permitted limited production of spirits for medicinal purposes and wine for religious sacraments. Though the efficacy of medicinal alcohol was debated and, at times, discouraged, the practice continued.[9] Medicinal alcohol could be prescribed to treat a wide variety of ailments, from cancer to depression and could be prescribed to anyone willing to pay the hefty price tag. In fact, prescribing alcohol became a pretty lucrative business for doctors and pharmacists. Obtaining and filling a prescription could cost around $6 for a pint at the time, which is upwards of $70 in today’s money.[10] Upon obtaining this prescription, patients could receive one pint of their drink of choice every ten days. The practice proved extremely popular and doctors prescribed an estimated 64 million pints of medicinal alcohol in the first year of Prohibition.  Eventually, the Willis-Campbell Act of 1921 tightened the restrictions of these prescriptions limiting doctors to 100 prescriptions every 90 days and patients to a half-pint of alcohol. These restrictions did little to lessen the frequency of prescriptions, and physicians wrote millions of prescription a year throughout the 1920s.[11] Mount Vernon Whiskey is a classic example of ‘medicinal alcohol’, and it clearly states on the back label that it is only to be ingested for medical purposes (yeah right!).  And at a whopping 100% proof, it would surely make you feel better, at least initially.

Conclusion

Although most patent medicines have disappeared, a few held on because they actually did cure certain ailments.  These include Bayer aspirin, Doan’s pills, Luden’s cough drops, and Vick’s VapoRub, to name a few, although now these medicines are regulated by the government.  However, that is not to say that unregulated medicines do not still exist in our country.  ‘Supplements’, often taken for medical purposes, were ruled to be a category of food in 1994 and as such are not required to do rigorous testing by the FDA.  Drugs have to be proven safe before they can be sold but supplements are assumed to be safe until proven otherwise and have no obligation to show that they actually work in the manner advertised.  Additionally, they do not have to disclose all ingredients or demonstrate they contain the concentration of ingredients advertised, making them the patent medicines of our modern era.

Carolyn Currin, UMW Student
Spring 2019 Fleming Smith Scholar

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

 

[1] Fike, Richard, The Bottle Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Historic, Embossed medicine Bottles. The Blackburn Press, New Jersey, 1987; Carson, Gerald, One for a Man, Two for a Horse: A Pictoral History, Grave & Comic, of Patent Medicines. Bramhall House, New York, 1961.

[2] L.L. Stanley, “Morphinism” Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology 6, no. 4 (1915): 586-93, https://www.jstor.org/stable/1132738?sid=primo&origin=crossref&seq=3#metadata_info_tab_contents [accessed April 8, 2019].

[3] Joe McKendry, “Sears Once Sold Heroin.” The Atlantic, March 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/03/sears-roebuck-bayer-heroin/580441/ [accessed April 8,, 2019].

[4] “Ether and Chloroform” History.com, April 21, 2018, https://www.history.com/topics/inventions/ether-and-chloroform [accessed April 8, 2019].

[5] “Quack Cures and Self-Remedies: Patent Medicine” Digital Public Library of America. https://dp.la/exhibitions/patent-medicine/women-health-household-hints/?item=1303 [accessed April 8, 2019].

[6] “Black Draught and Cardui Promise Quick Relief” The History Engine, 2015 https://historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/4650 [accessed April 8, 2019].

[7] Ibid; Cramp, Arthur J. “Nostrums and Quackery: Articles on the Nostrum Evil, Quackery and Allied Matters Affecting the Public Health” American Medical Association, vol. 2 (1921). https://books.google.com/books?id=8AVEAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA171&lpg=PA171&dq=wine+of+cardui&source=bl&ots=Uj6v9dWCFj&sig=ACfU3U2BbKfuBig1nwqlbX1WzoNZkQdBLA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwi16Jjw7MDhAhVEqlkKHThZBV04ChDoATAOegQICBAB#v=onepage&q=wine%20of%20cardui&f=false [accessed April 8. 2019].

[8] Becky M. Nicolaides, “The State’s ‘Sharp Line Between the Sexes: Women, alcohol, and the law in the United States, 1850-1908” Addiction 8, no. 91 (1996): 1211-1230, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8828248 [accessed April 8, 2019].

[9] Megan Gambino, “During Prohibition, You Doctor Could Write You A Prescription for Booze,” Smithsonian.com, October 7, 2013, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/during-prohibition-your-doctor-could-write-you-prescription-booze-180947940/ [accessed April 8, 2019].

[10] Paula Mejia, “The Lucrative Business of Prescribing Booze During Prohibition” Atlas Obscura, March 15, 2017, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/doctors-booze-notes-prohibition [accessed April 8, 2019]; “Medicinal Alcohol” The Ohio State University, 2019. https://prohibition.osu.edu/american-prohibition-1920/medicinal-alcohol [accessed April 8, 2019].

[11] Ibid.

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“It is Indeed Bad to Eat Apples. It is Better to Make Them All Cider”: When Cider Reigned Supreme in America

Happy-Thanksgiving-“It is indeed bad to eat apples. It is better to make them all cider” — Benjamin Franklin

Name a beverage consumed by all age groups, men and women alike, the poor and the very rich, from sun up to sun down, that is touted as healthy and refreshing yet also contains alcohol.  If you were a colonial American, the answer was hard cider.  In America’s early days, cider reigned supreme and, even though the beverage is currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity, consumption of cider is nowhere near as high as it was during George Washington’s lifetime. To better understand early Americans’ obsession with cider, one must go back to the first European colonization of America (What a great idea! Let’s do that).

It’s the early 17th century and colonists are trying to make their new home a bit more like their old home.  One sure way to do this is to bring over plants to grow the food you already like.  Sometimes, this doesn’t work very well (grapes, for example) but, sometimes, the introduced species thrive in their new environment.  Such was the case with apples.  Technically, there are already two varieties of crabapple native to the Americas but these are not especially good eating compared to domesticated apple varieties in Europe.  Ultimately, the apple became such a popular cultivar, some land grants stipulated that to claim legal ownership you had to plant apple trees to prove you intended to stay and improve the land.

Still Life with Apples, Grapes and a Pot of Jam (1700s) by Luis Meléndez

“Still Life with Apples, Grapes and a Pot of Jam” (1700s) by Luis Meléndez. Credit: Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya / Wikipedia

That North American climate and soil was well suited to apples was especially fortuitous since colonists were also looking for things to ferment into alcohol. Alcohol was a large part of their diet, and it just so happens that apples lend themselves very well to this end.  Think about it, in addition to providing fresh fruit, apples could be dried for storage, fed to livestock in the fall to fatten them before butchering, made into apple cider vinegar which is both useful for medicinal purposes but also a key ingredient for pickling, one of the most common preservative methods at the time, and finally turned into lots of yummy fermented beverages like, apple brandy, and applejack (we’ll talk about this interesting drink a bit later), and cider..

Making apple cider is very simple, and it’s even simpler to make hard cider.  In fact, left to their own devices, apples practically ferment themselves since they are covered with wild yeast that loves to eat sugar and throw off alcohol as a pleasant byproduct.  So, colonists didn’t have to work very hard to turn perishable cider into hard cider, which could be stored longer.  Furthermore, if you expose hard cider to oxygen for too long, it will naturally turn into vinegar. What’s not to love?

Cider Making (c.1840) by William Sydney Mount

“Cider Making” (c.1840) by William Sydney Mount. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art / Wikipedia.

Did I mention how much cider was consumed during the colonial period?  It should be noted that even though it did contain alcohol it wasn’t necessarily considered an alcoholic drink.  John Adams drank a large glass of cider every morning (yep) and fancied himself an abstainer of strong drink.  Cider was described as healthy and a thirst quencher, likely owing to the slight carbonation which is also a byproduct of fermentation. Children regularly consumed hard cider, which isn’t nearly as horrific as it sounds when you take into account that it had a low ABV of around 3% and this probably made it safer to drink that most water available.

However, children were not encouraged to partake of cider’s much bigger and somewhat brutish brother, applejack.  Applejack resulted when you allowed hard cider to freeze and removed the frozen water crystals, leaving the concentrated alcohol behind.  The more times this simple distillation process was repeated the stronger the applejack becomes.  This method also does little to remove impurities contained within the cider so the result can be a very high octane skull splitter, which was still much beloved of colonials.

Although cider was a very common drink, it could also be elevated to gourmet status. Just as wine drinking has advanced to a fine art, with enthusiasts who obsess over the distinctive notes each grape produces under distinctive growing conditions, so did gentry colonists enjoy comparing fine ciders from different regions and varieties of apples.  Much was made of the ‘terroir’ of ciders, or the climate, soil, and landscape where the apples were produced.  Modern varieties of apples are much different than those available three hundred years ago so it’s interesting to ponder over the distinct flavors colonial ciders would have had, especially given that they had access to a wider variety of apples than we do today. There were thousands of varieties available across the colonies and early Republic producing thousands of distinct ciders.  So perhaps the saying should not be ‘As American as apple pie’ but rather ‘As American as apple cider’.

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Ceramics & Glass Specialist

Further Reading

Brown, John Hull.  Early American Beverages. Bonanza Books, New York. 1966

Grasse, Steven. Colonial Spirits. Abrams Image, New York. 2016

Oliver, Sandra L.  Food in Colonial And Federal America. Greenwood Press, London. 2005

Root, Waverly and Richard De Rochemont. Eating In America. The Ecco Press. 1995

George’s Hometown: Julian’s Tavern

As George Washington’s Ferry Farm prepares to celebrate the reconstruction of the Washington house, we traveled around George’s hometown – Fredericksburg, Virginia – to visit a few places important in the transformation of George from boy to man.

Besides learning to survey and receiving his formal schooling, young George Washington also pursued an education in the social graces valued in gentry circles while a young man at Ferry Farm. These social graces included dancing, fencing, horseback riding, and gentlemen’s games like cards.  Card-playing was a popular pastime in the taverns that Washington frequented all across Virginia.

On one occasion – Christmas Eve 1769 – adult George passed the evening at Julian’s Tavern in Fredericksburg with Edward Jones, the overseer of Ferry Farm.  This tavern was located at the corner of present-day Amelia and Caroline Streets.

George's Hometown 3

You can ready more about when Washington returned to his hometown for Christmas in 1769 by clicking here.

Join us at the Washington House Celebration on Saturday, October 7, 2017 from 12:00 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. to celebrate the construction of the Washington house! A special ribbon-cutting ceremony will begin at 1:30 p.m. featuring notable speakers. After the ceremony, guests will be invited to view the reconstructed Washington house! Parking for the event is off site at the VRE Fredericksburg Park and Ride Lot G at the corner of Prince Edward Street and Frederick Street. Limited handicap parking is available at Ferry Farm. Buses will transport guests to and from Ferry Farm. The Washington House Celebration is a free event and RSVPs are not required.

Election Day in the 1700s

It’s Election Day! From early morning until after dark, voters in Virginia and across the United States are walking into libraries, schools, firehouses, community centers, city halls and, occasionally, even private homes. Once inside, they are given a paper ballot, punch card or, though still relatively rare, may be directed to a touch screen. The voter steps up to or into a voting booth walled off with some type of barrier. There is an atmosphere of quiet deliberateness.  The individual voter alone marks the candidates of their choice. When finished, they place their ballot into a secure ballot box. The ballot requires no signature nor is the voter required to make a public declaration revealing who they are support.  White propertied men of the 18th century like Fielding Lewis, Augustine Washington, and George Washington would be surprised by our 21st century voting process.

In early America, Election Day was an intensely public affair and often times an excuse for everyone, whether allowed to vote or not, to travel to the county seat for the election but also to visit neighbors, conduct business, and simply have a good time.  There was a holiday atmosphere that could get quite uproarious!

the-polling-by-william-hogarth

“The Polling” by William Hogarth (1755), scene 3 in his Humours of an Election series. While Hogarth’s goal is to mercilessly satire English politics, his painting also hints at the festive atmosphere of an actual 18th century Election Day. Credit: Sir John Soane’s Museum / The Yorck Project / Wikipedia.

The festival atmosphere was fueled by a common, though technically illegal, vote-getting technique: alcohol.  The law said that candidates could not provide drinks to votes from the time the election was announced until after votes were cast on Election Day.  To work around this restriction, candidates simply enlisted spouses, family, friends, or servants to distribute the spirits.

George Washington first ran for a seat in the House of Burgesses in 1757. Each county sent two representatives to the house.  In this first election, Washington came in third in a field of three and garnered only 40 votes.  The next year, he stood again.  He won with 310 votes – the most of the four candidates.  While certainly not the sole reason for his victory, in 1758, Washington reimbursed friends £39 for 34 gallons of rum, 3 pints of brandy, 13 gallons of beer, 8 quarts of cider, and 40 gallons of rum punch served to voters.[1]  He wrote one of these friends, James Wood, saying “I am extreme thankly [sic] to you & my other friends for entertaining the Freeholders in my name—I hope no exception were taken to any that voted against me but that all were alike treated and all had enough it is what I much desird [sic]—my only fear is that you spent with too sparing a hand.”

an-election-entertainment-by-william-hogarth

“An Election Entertainment” (1755) by William Hogarth, scene 1 in his Humours of an Election series. The painting is a critical depiction of a candidate hosting a dinner for voters at a tavern. Credit: Sir John Soane’s Museum / The Yorck Project / Wikipedia.

Although 18th century candidates couldn’t directly supply alcohol to voters, they were expected to be present during voting and were also expected to warmly greet all voters.  Today, in most states, there are restrictions against candidates or a candidate’s supporters from campaigning at or near a polling place while voting is taking place.  The candidate was present, in part, so that he could thank the voter for their vote.

Voting in the 1700s was not secret. There were no ballots. Virginians practiced the long English tradition of a public voice vote. Before family, friends, neighbors, and the candidates themselves, a freeholder – a propertied white man allowed to vote – “came before the sheriff, his name was called out in a loud voice, and the sheriff inquired how he would vote.  The freeholder replied by giving the name of his preference.”  The freeholder’s name was recorded in the poll book in a column under the name of his choice.  “The candidate for whom he had voted, arose, bowed, and publicly thanked him.”

While the secret ballot is sacred today, public voice votes of the 18th century and the poll books in which the votes were recorded provide historians with valuable knowledge about the elections of the time and about who voted for whom.  They also hint at personal connections within communities.  For example, we know that Augustine Washington, George Washington’s father, voted for William Fairfax, Esqr and Colonel James Colvill for Prince William County’s two seats in the House of Burgesses in 1741.  We know that Fairfax won one seat with 246 votes and Colvill won the other seat with 175 votes.[2]  While we should be cautious about reading too much into Augustine’s support for Fairfax, George would go on to cultivate connections with William and other Fairfax family members.  After Augustine’s death, George aspired to be like William’s cousin Thomas Lord Fairfax, “socially prominent, well-connected, and involved in important affairs.”

prince-william-county-polling-book

Portion of a page from “The Poll for Election of Burgesses for the County of Prince William…” in 1741.

Americans have been voting for an exceptionally long time. We were voting even before a United States of America existed.  The methods have changed over four centuries and although we no longer literally voice our vote, your vote is still your voice. Be heard today. Go vote!

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life, New York: Penguin Press, 2010: 88.

[2] Poll for Election of Burgesses in Prince William County, 1741, Deed Book E, pg. 524, Prince William County, Va.