Just what the doctor ordered!

When it comes to the weird and wonderful in 19th century life, it’s hard to go past the field of medicine: specifically, pharmaceutical and ‘self-care’ remedies. Health-related products can be some of the wackiest and most interesting things we find in the archaeological record, especially when they’re put into the context of contemporary advertising and marketing strategies. They also offer us the opportunity to understand the health concerns of people in the past: not just what they actually suffered from and how they treated it, but what they thought they suffered from and what they considered to be healthy.

Mostly, though, they’re fascinating. And often hilarious.

With that in mind, the following are some of our favourites. Enjoy!


Lamplough’s Effervescing Pyretic Saline. A ‘cure-all’ patent medicine, Lamplough’s Saline was made by Henry Lamplough, based in Holborn, London, in the latter half of the 19th century. It was advertised as a remedy for SO many ailments, from cholera and smallpox to ‘eruptive skin’, sea sickness and headaches. Several of the advertisements emphasise its efficacy in preventing tropical and colonial diseases, which suggests that it was aimed more at the export market than the local one. Image (clockwise, from top left): G. Jackson, Wikimedia, Otago Witness 19/10//1888: 40, Wanganui Herald 19/09/1887:2.


St Jacobs Oil, the “Great German Remedy”, was advertised primarily as a pain reliever. One article describes it as a “standard pain remedy for bruises, sprains or sores in man or beast” (Otago Witness 26/04/1893: 3) and the “conquers pain” tagline was common in advertisements for the oil. According to the British Medical Journal in 1894, St Jacobs Oil was 84% turpentine with traces of camphor 10% ether, 5% alcohol, 2% carbolic acid, 0.4% capsicum and 0.01% aconite. While aconite (and capsicum, to a degree) is known to have pain-relieving properties, particularly for rheumatism and as an anti-inflammatory, turpentine and carbolic acid are more commonly used as antiseptics or disinfectants. Carbolic acid, in particular, is now considered to be fairly toxic. Image: J. Garland, Otago Witness 28/04/1883: 3.


Eucalyptus oil was a popular remedy during the 19th century as, to a degree, it still is now. Although this particular bottle is embossed with the name of R. G. Bosisto, no information could be found about this person. It’s possible that the bottle was associated with Joseph Bosisto, a well-known eucalyptus oil manufacturer who began harvesting and selling the oil in 1853, either as a derivative of his product or an imitation. Advertisements for the oil provide an interesting example of how medical advertising can reflect the health concerns of the past as much as the properties of the actual medicine.. In the 1880s, many of the advertisements emphasise the usefulness of eucalyptus oil as a remedy for cholera, while in the early 20th century, at the height of the influenza epidemic, the advertisements were all about its use in alleviating colds and influenza. Image: J. Garland, Southland Times 8/08/1883:2Dominion 18/09/1919:2.


Bishop’s Granular Citrate of Lithia and Citrate of Magnesia, the creations of Alfred Bishop, a London chemist established in 1857. The magnesia was advertised for stomach ailments, as a product “surpassing the ordinary seidletz powder”, while the lithia seems to have primarily been advertised as a remedy for gout. One recipe for the citrate of magnesia suggests that it contained a mixture of sodium bicarbonate and tartaric acid (which is awfully close to baking powder, when you think about it…). Image: J. Garland, Otago Daily Times 12/01/1900: 8, Otago Witness 01/02/1868: 10.


Holloway’s Ointment and Pills, advertised as ‘cure anything’ products, listed everything from asthma and cancer to ‘female complaints’ within the scope of their curative abilities. They were the brainchild of Thomas Holloway, who began selling his ointment and pills in the 1830s in England. He was something of an advertising pioneer, an approach that paid off for him: by the mid-19th century Holloway’s products had become hugely popular and he had amassed a significant fortune. Although it seems to be unclear exactly what was in the ointment, the pills were later discovered to contain non-medicinal, but harmless ingredients like ginger, soap and castor oil. Image: J. Garland, Poverty Bay Herald 21/04/1884: 4Tuapeka Times 22/12/1870: 10Clutha Leader 25/06/1880: 7.


Charles Hockin, chemist, was based in London in the early to mid-19th century. He retired in 1859, although the company continued under the name of Hockin, Wilson/Welson & Co. The firm produced a variety of products, including digestive drops, ginger beer powder, essence of Rennett, “inexhaustible salts” and liver pills. Chief among them though, was a product called Seidlitz Powder, a “gentle medicine” that was somehow also a “purgative salt”, marketed as long lasting and a remedy for day to day ailments (including the ever present bilious attacks!). Image: J. Garland, Thames Adviser 13/04/1878: 4Lyttelton Times 14/01/1857: 12.


This bottle, embossed with “PRESTON SALTS” appears to have contained Mounsey’s Preston Smelling Salts, the type of salts used to revive fainting ladies (or men, one supposes). Recipes published in 1854 and 1892 indicate that the salts were largely ammonia based, containing a solution of ammonia, powdered chloride of ammonia and powdered carbonate of ammonia in addition to powdered carbonate of potassium, oil of bergamot, oil of clove and sometimes oil of lavender. Several types of smelling salts existed during the 19th century, but Preston Salts seems to have been among the higher quality ones available. It was advertised in New Zealand from the 1850s onwards. Image: J. Garland, Lyttelton Times 12/02/1853: 3.


Ford’s Pectoral Balsam of Horehound was first patented by Robert Ford in 1816. The original mixture contained horehound (a plant with medicinal qualities), liquorice root, water, spirit of wine, gum camphore, Turkish opium, “benjamin” (actually benzoin), squill (another medicinal plant), oil of aniseed and clarified honey. The recipe was later modified by his successor, Thomas Ford, in 1830, although the modifications seem to have been minimal. It was advertised as a remedy for respiratory ailments, including influenza, asthma and coughs. Image: C. Dickson, Wellington Independent 17/10/1865: 8.


The “unequalled and invincible” Woods Great Peppermint Cure claimed to cure coughs and colds and was the creation of chemist W. E. Woods, a New Zealand chemist. Woods first set up shop in Hastings, Hawkes Bay, in 1881 before moving to Wellington and eventually to Sydney, where he died in 1927. W. E. Woods & Co., New Zealand, however, remained active his death. Image: C. Dickson, Hawkes Bay Herald 13/06/1895: 2, 13/06/1895: 4.


The one and only Califig, “nature’s own laxative”. Advertised primarily for bowel complaints, the California Syrup of Figs also claimed to alleviate the problems of heartburn, bad breath and loss of appetite. It was particularly targeted at mothers, as a remedy for unhappy children, with one advertisement bearing the tagline “once ‘touchy’ and tearful, now full of fun, his system cleansed with Califig.” Image: J. Garland, Bottlepickers,  New Zealand Herald 8/02/1942: 3.

Jessie Garland

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