Quack Medicine Bottles

I have now included a section devoted to information about and images of all varieties of antique bottles & glass; especially so called “Quack Medicines” that were so readily available throughout the 19th century and beyond. A prescription in the 1800s was no more than a recipe that was provided to an apothecary for mixing of ingredients. The very title of “doctor” in the 1800s was vague at best, as there were no legal standards and practices established to regulate the title.

Very few compounds actually benefited the patient or consumer in any way. Among the effective ones were quinine for malaria, opiates for pain, digitalis for the heart and tar or creosote for open wounds. Creosote was applied to flesh wounds or cleaned gangrenous wounds, especially in the Civil War, to prevent further infection or decay. For a short time, creosote, or coal tar, was used in cough suppressants. The fact that it was poisonous took a little longer to figure out.

Quack medicines were known as patent medicines during the 18th and 19th centuries. Often times, entrepreneurs and self-proclaimed doctors would travel the countryside hawking their cures for cancer, gout, boils, rheumatism or even illness incurred through moral indiscretion. There would usually be a good deal of showmanship involved.

The designs of the bottles and labeling of these preparations was part of the show. Many of the most valuable are the ones with the most unusual style or color, accompanied with the pontil-mark on the base, which was evidence of having been a hand-blown. Antique bottles that note narcotic ingredients are very collectible today.

Very few medicines in the 1800s actually worked, in the sense that they would all to often be of unknown or “secret” concoction with little or no curative properties. Various analyses have been performed over the years to demystify the origin of most of the elixirs, cures, panaceas, tinctures, potions, remedies, painkillers, anodynes, liniments, cordials, compounds, homeopathic remedies, salves, salts and other quack medicines. The results were astounding.

The contents of patent medicines would range from useless sugar water to narcotic tinctures that could easily kill infants or children because of the high level of morphine, chloroform , heroin, cocaine or opium. It appears that many English and American citizens became habituated to a great degree to these medicines. These compounds were accidentally effective if for no other reason than they helped the patient forget their pain or illness for a short time. Dysentery and cholera were rampant in the 19th century, so the fact that strong opiates were available without prescription at the corner drugstore could have been a blessing in disguise. Opiates are extremely effective in halting diarrhea and severe coughing, subsequently saving lives.

The bottle shown here was named “Teasdale’s Chlorodyne”. Victorian trash heaps are brimming with these bottles. The contents were reportedly morphine, chloroform, cannabis indica (marijuana resin) and sometimes cyanide and capsicum. Laudanum was the equivalent in the United States, composed mainly of morphine or raw opium dissolved in alcohol.

In late Victorian England, Teasdale’s Chlorodyne and other medicines were legally challenged as being a danger to public welfare. The manufacturer’s were given the choice of removing the narcotic ingredients or labeling the medicine as “poison” to deter overdoses. They chose to re-label. You will see most of the bottles like the one pictured above with the embossing “POISON” or the ever-familiar “NOT TO BE TAKEN”.

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