Artefact stories: 19th century chemists and other subjects…

Today’s blog was inspired by three pharmaceutical bottles that aroused my curiosity and gave me the perfect excuse to talk about a few 19th century chemists in Christchurch…

I came across the first small glass fragment in an assemblage from a late 19th century domestic site in the north Christchurch. I know, the fragment is tiny and the embossing is well-worn down, almost to the point of illegibility, but I could still make out a few letters: TOWN…, PHY… and CHRISTCHURCH. These provided me with my first clues in the tale of discovery I’m sharing with you today…

If you look closely, you can just make out the letters. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

My first thought, given this partial evidence, was that this small fragment was part of a bottle of Townsend’s Sarsaparilla, a remedy we often find in Christchurch assemblages. It was advertised as a blood purifier and cure for general health in newspapers of the time, first introduced by Samuel Townsend in 1839. Although the name is similar, as you can see, it turns out that Dr Samuel Townsend was not the man we were looking for…

Left: Townsend’s Sarsaparilla (Image: Jessie Garland). Right: Press 31-10-1902: 7. Oh wow! If you are a woman with headache and feeling weak muscle, Townsend’s Sarsaparilla is the solution! If you are a man suffering the same symptoms, sorry!

Then, a little bit later on, I still had that tiny shard of glass fresh in my mind when archaeology presented me with the perfect opening in the case of this mysterious manufacturer. On a bottle from another archaeological site, this time in Lyttelton, I found the full inscription: DR J.H. TOWNEND CRYSTAL PALACE BUILDINGS CHRISTCHURCH. At this point, I was fairly certain that I had found him! Mystery solved!

On the left we can see the Dr Townend’s bottle. On the right, there is detail of the base, where we can see who the bottle was made by, through the initials Y. G. Co. This company, known as the York Flint Glass Company, was established by Joseph Spence in 1835 and continued in production until at least 1930. They were known for their high-quality glass bottles and jars for soft drinks as well as food containers and medicines. Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

Dr Joseph Henry Townend was a 19th century Christchurch doctor, who was born in England and first arrived in Lyttelton in charge of immigrant health on board the ship ‘Rakaia’ in 1874. One year later, he came back to New Zealand on the ‘White Rose’, with his brother William, and established his business in the Crystal Palace Buildings, where he remained until his death in 1902 (Star 11/07/1902: 3). He became one of the most popular physicians in Canterbury in the 19th century and some of the bottles used to hold his remedies made their way into the archaeological record to be found a century and a half later. My tiny mysterious fragment would have originally been part of a bottle marked ‘DR J. H. TOWNEND / CONSULTING PHYSICIAN / CHRISTCHURCH’.

View down Colombo Street toward the Port Hills. Right: Market (Victoria) Square. Left: Crystal Palace Building. Christchurch, ca. 1870. Image: Christchurch City Libraries.

You’d think that would be end of it, no? But, like some kind of stalker from beyond the grave, Townend seems to follow me through my working life, since, not long after this, another Townend’s bottle turned up! This example (I promise you that it is the last one!), although still incomplete, clearly read: TOWNEND CHEMIST CHRISTCHURCH. From this, I was led to William, Joseph Townend’s brother, who worked as a chemist in partnership with his brother here in Christchurch.

Image: M. Lillo Bernabeu.

A bit of historical sleuthing later, I discovered that William Townend, in addition to his pharmaceutical activities, had quite a few interesting episodes in his life (and yes, I do love this historical gossip, but only a little…).

Left: portrait of William Potter Townend. Right: Cinnamon Cure advertisement

William Potter Townend arrived in Christchurch with his brother Joseph Henry in 1875 and ran the Townend’s Chemist and Druggist Store from the Crystal Palace Building on Colombo Street well into the 20th century. He made a variety of medicines to treat common diseases, like his famous ‘Cinnamon Cure’ for throat and lung ailments, ‘Townend’s Bilious and Liver pill’, children’s teething powders and personal grooming products such as the ‘Antipityninne’ or ‘Townend’s Sulphur’ hair restorers. (Riley 2011).

However, his story deviates somewhat in the 1870s. On the 20th of May 1876, William was charged with the manslaughter of a baby born from Amelia Isaac, whom he had attended in the absence of his brother. The details are a bit grisly, but suffice to say that the baby died because of his assistance. Consequently, the Supreme Court condemned him to six months of imprisonment for the incompetent practice of medicine. The case had a huge social impact and more than 5000 thousand people signed a petition praying for his release. What a popular man! Certainly, the scale of this petition is something, given the offence with which he was charged…

And then, if being charged with manslaughter wasn’t problematic enough, William was also charged – along with his colleague George Bonnington – with the offence of selling poison to a man who died after purchasing laudanum. In this case, he had to pay a fine, quite a soft punishment, I guess…

Press 13/07/1877: 2. Quite the mulit-faceted man, Mr Towned. As well as practicing pharmacy and medicine, however badly, William was active in Christchurch society. He was a member of the Christchurch Musical Society, playing the contralto and singing with ‘much expression and sweetness’… Maybe singing was his secret talent? Who knows!

The manslaughter charge is interesting, not just because of the petition and social context of the crime, but also because it provides an example of a man doing what was usually considered women’s work. Generally, midwives in the 19th century were mostly married women who worked autonomously. The majority of the births during the 19th and early 20 centuries took place in the home. Although it was a difficult part of women’s role, it was also a natural part of their lives (Stojanovic 2010). Infant mortality was a serious problem and measures like regulating the midwifery practice, providing education, creating a midwifery register and improving maternity care were methods used to reduce that high rate.

Let’s come back to the artefacts, shall we? The archaeological record provides us with material evidence of several chemists based in Christchurch during the 19th century along with Mr William Potter Townend. Sometimes, as with the Townend fragments, these bottles can give us valuable information about the glass and the product manufacturers. We can also be the luckiest archaeologists in the world and figure out the exact contents of the bottle when the label or embossing is present. Here’s a few examples…

Probably the most famous one! Bonnington’s Irish Moss was used for the cure of respiratory ailments and was still in production until the 1970s. George Bonnington began his business in Christchurch in 1872. Image: J. Garland.

John Berry’s premises were located at Colombo Street in the late 19th century and remained there well into the 20th century. He advertises his ‘miraculous corn salve’ which, apparently, painlessly removes corns, bunions. (New Zealand Times 7/06/1893: 2) and other products as ‘Florolia’ (New Zealand Times 10/04/1894), Hair Lotion for children, Fruit Syrups (Press 29/11/1897: 1), Berry’s Indigestion Cure, Berry’s Rheumatic and Gout Remedy (Press 23/02/1898: 1) or Berry’s Killkorn (Press 2/04/1898: 10). He was also appointed as the agent for Wellington and District for the treatment of Female Complaints (Evening Post 28/04/1896: 3).

John Baxter was also a chemist in Christchurch from 1870 onwards. He patented his Lung Preserver in c. 1889, advertised as a remedy for influenza, coughs & colds etc. Image: J. Garland.

Finally, I can’t finish without sharing my latest discovery with you, drawn, again, from my particular obsession with women and gender, you know…

Who’s this? Elizabeth Robinson, the first woman chemist registered in New Zealand. She was working as a chemist and druggist from as early as 1872, before which time she was helping her husband Richard in the Joseph Arthur Cooke Pharmacy in Cashel Street. When her husband died in 1872, she became the owner of the chemist’s shop, running the business until 1886 and registering as a chemist on the 28th of June 1881 (Shaw 1998: 27). As you can imagine, I’m looking forward to finding at least one of her bottles…

Maria Lillo Bernabeu

References

Christchurch City Libraries [online] Available at: https://my.christchurchcitylibraries.com/

Evening Post [online]. Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Lyttelton Times [online]. Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

New Zealand Times [online]. Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Riley, W. (2011). Cinnamon Cures and Cosmetic Connections. [online] Available at https://lostchristchurch.wordpress.com/2011/09/20/townends-chemist-1897/

Press [online]. Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Solomons, H. and Riley, W. 2017. Lost Christchurch. Remembering our Lost Heritage. [online] Available at: https://lostchristchurch.wordpress.com/

Star [online]. Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

 

 

 

 

 

 

And when I get that feeling…

In the lyrics to his hit 1982 song, Sexual Healing, Marvin Gaye cries out (in smooth and sultry tones, really) for a remedy that will relieve his mind, restore his emotional stability, stop the “blue teardrops” falling and calm the sea “stormin’ inside of me.” It may surprise you to discover that, amazingly and with only a tiny bit of artistic license (well, sort of), this song works rather well as an allegory for Victorian attitudes to sex. Yep, you heard me. Particularly if you listen to them the day after reading an 1840s-1860s treatise on sexual health, impotence and general quackery (do not recommend for the squeamish…). It’s the last lines, usually faded out past the point of hearing in recorded versions, that really clinch it: “please don’t procrastinate,” he sings softly, “it’s not good to masturbate.”

Bet you didn’t know about that line did you.

I realise that this foray into 1980s R & B and/or the (surprisingly very graphic) world of Victorian sexual health is somewhat out of character for this blog, but do bear with us, dear reader. Let us take you on a journey down the rabbit hole to a side of 19th century life not often talked about, and definitely not often found archaeologically.

It all began a few weeks ago, with the discovery of a relatively unassuming pharmaceutical bottle in an assemblage from the 1870s-1880s. Plain in form and resembling the many tinctures of cough medicine, pain killers, oils and blood purifiers we commonly find on Victorian sites, the bottle was also embossed with an unusual product name: Perry’s Cordial Balm of Syriacum. The name references Syria, which at the time had both exotic and biblical connotations that were exploited by medical entrepreneurs, as well as an earlier well-known remedy called Solomon’s Balm of Gilead (which itself references biblical healing…; Helfand 1989). The product, as it turns out, was a patent medicine primarily advertised as a remedy for three things: syphilis, gonorrhea and sexual impotence. Specifically:

THE CORDIAL BALM OF SYRIACUM is a gentle stimulant and renovator of the impaired functions of life, and is exclusively directed to the cure of such complaints as arise from the disorganization of the Generative System, whether constitutional or acquired, loss of sexual power, and debility arising from syphilis; and is calculated to afford decided relief to those who by early indulgence in solitary habits have weakened the powers of their system, and fallen into a state of chronic debility, by which the constitution is left in a deplorable state…The consequences arising from this dangerous practice are not confined to its pure physical result, but branch to moral ones; leading the excited, deviating mind into a fertile field of seductive error – into a gradual and total degradation of manhood…How many at eighteen receive the impression of the seeds of syphilitic disease itself? The consequences of which travel out of the ordinary tract of bodily ailment, covering the frame with disgusting evidences of its ruthless nature, and impregnating the wholesome stream of life with mortal poison; conveying into families the seeds of disunion and unhappiness; undermining domestic harmony; and striking at the very soul of human intercourse.”

-The Cambrian, 9/09/1843, p. 1

Yikes. Various advertisements for the balm in the 1850s and 1860s claimed that it was a “never-failing remedy for Spermatorrhoea”, “loss of manly power”, “obstinate gleet[1]”, “tic-dolereaux” and “the prostration and languor produced by sojourning in the colonies or hot climates” (New Zealander 17/08/1861: 6). It, apparently, also “favoured the reproduction of the semen and strengthened at the same time the secretory vessels and the resevoirs” and “removed radically all the affections of the genital parts in both sexes; substituting vigour for impotence, and fecundity in place of barrenness” (Perry and Perry 1841). All of which is a lot for one little remedy to do. Although it was apparently “adapted for both sexes”, it is worth noting that most of the advertisements targeted men. When female complaints were discussed, the most attention was paid to the illnesses and dangers of menopause (or, as described at the time, “the turn of life”) and the “safe conduct” promised by the use of the Balm of Syriacum (Perry and Perry 1841: 62).

Perry’s Cordial Balm of Syriacum bottle, found in Christchurch. Image: Chelsea Dickson.

The actual contents of the balm are unknown, although it may have contained origanum syriacum, which was believed to have blood purifying abilities (Watson 2013: 90). Other similar products, such as the Balm of Gilead, are believed to have contained nothing more than “a few spices and herbs dissolved in a substantial percentage of fine old French brandy” (Helfand 1989: 155). As such, while they may have made the patient feel better for a little while – or  as one person puts it, mistake “the frenzy of inebriation for the natural glow of renovated health” – they are unlikely to have achieved any of the lofty goals outlined in their advertisements (Wilson 2008).

Advertisement for Perry’s Cordial Balm of Syriacum. Note the long litany of ailments it will allegedly relieve. Image: New Zealander 17/08/1861: 6.

The balm was made and sold by R. & L. Perry, London ‘surgeons’ who made quite a name for themselves as specialists in sexual health, specifically the treatment of impotence and the clap. They were self-described consulting surgeons and medical men who “feel that we are not exceeding the limits of truth, or transgressing the bounds of professional etiquette, in asserting that our mode of practice…has been productive of the happiest and most successful results in the treatment of sexual debility in both sexes” (Perry and Perry 1841: vi). In this statement, they were supported by a multitude of (somewhat similar) testimonials from patients who listed, in sometimes excruciating detail, the symptoms and maladies of which they had been cured. In truth, however, they were quacks.

Quackery – animal magnetism, as it happens – in action, c. 1780. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

A good part of what we know about the Perrys and their medical beliefs comes from their book The Silent Friend[2], a treatise on onanism (masturbation) and its consequences, such as impotence, as well as venereal and syphilitic diseases. The Silent Friend contained in its many pages of flowery language, a 65 page long diatribe against “solitary indulgence”, constant advertisements for the Balm of Syriacum and other medicines, numerous descriptions of the symptoms and manifestations of gonorrhea and syphilis, and several disturbing recommendations for the treatment of said venereal diseases. I think my favourite might be the injection of a mixture of lead sulphate (toxic), zinc sulphate, rose water (inexplicably) and opium into sensitive areas. Kids, do not try this at home…

Although the graphic detail of both disease and treatment is morbidly fascinating, it’s the fixation of the authors on the dangers of onanism that I find particularly curious.The Perrys were of the opinion that masturbation not only destroyed the health and mind of the individual, it was a danger to “the welfare of the empire” due to the ways it destroyed man’s emotional, moral and procreative abilities and passed those same debilities on to any children such a sufferer might manage to have. Interestingly, this was a fear that was shared among many in Victorian society: it had become more and more widespread in the 18th century and by the mid-19th century, quack doctors like R. & L. Perry were perpetuating and exploiting the fear and shame associated with masturbation, including the notion that it was responsible for impotence. The list of things caused by such self-indulgence is long and contains a wide range of physical, mental and moral symptoms, to the point where almost any failing of a man or his character could be blamed on his own weakness (oddly enough, no reference is made by the Perrys to women suffering from this particular problem…)

This man is apparently suffering from too much solitary indulgence. “He less resembled a living creature than a corpse; lying upon straw, meagre, pale, and filthy, casting forth an infectious stench, almost incapable of motion, a watery palish blood issued from the nose, his tongue was frightfully swelled, and saliva constantly flowed from his mouth.” Image: The Silent Friend, p. 32.

Sufferers of this terrible malady reported, among other things too graphic to include, that (and do keep in mind those Marvin Gaye lyrics…):

  • “the powers of the mind were much weakened, my judgment had lost its solidity, my head was confused and subject to frequent swimmings”
  • “he often shed tears involuntarily, and a quantity of corrosive pus continually issued from the corners of his eyes”
  • “my spirits greatly depressed, so that at times I could scarcely refrain from sighing and involuntary weeping”
  • “a disordered stomach, dry consumptive cough, weakness in the voice, hoarseness, shortness of breath on the least exercise”

In general, the various treatments for onanism, as well as the ubiquitously suggested Balm of Syriacum, of course, are just as horrifying as those suggested for venereal diseases. Potential cures ranged from cauterizations and blisterings of the penis (yikes, again) to the application of camphor to the genitals, the use of a ‘curative belt’ which sent shocks of electricity through one’s groin, and that old favourite, arsenic (McLaren 2007: 134). Also, specifically in the case of onanism and impotence, matrimony was recommended. The Perrys were strong advocates, surprisingly given our usual impression of Victorians, for a healthy sex life, but only within the confines of marriage. Marriage, and procreation, were after all, the purpose of human existence.

On marriage. Image: The Silent Friend, p. 129.

There’s something of a curious juxtaposition here, I think, between the repressed sexuality and morals of Victorian society and the quackery that very much played on the fears and habits exacerbated by social silence on the subject of sex. It’s visible in the lack of discussion around such matters in daily life and the utter relish with which books like The Silent Friend describe, in extraordinarily graphic terms, the consequences of ‘bad’ sexual habits. I started this post with Marvin Gaye and a tongue in cheek reading of a beloved song (sorry, everyone), but as I’ve written it, I’ve found myself thinking more and more about how much the social censorship, shame and plain old lack of information encouraged the spread of venereal disease and general ill health in the Victorian era (and our own, as it happens, don’t think we’re past this yet). Society created a vacuum into which so-called doctors like R. & L. Perry could step with alacrity and success, virtually unchallenged[3], to both exploit those unspoken fears and spread their own misinformation, in horrendous and alarming detail. Some things are better talked about, as it turns out, than hidden under the bed.

In the words of another (maybe less beloved song), let’s talk about sex, people. And always avoid treatments and doctors that recommend injecting lead sulphate into your genitals. If you’ve learned anything from this blog, let it be that.

Jessie Garland

[1] One anecdote recounted the curing of an obstinate gleet “by the injection of punch, a remedy suggested in a convivial moment; another time by green tea” (Perry and Perry 1841).

[2] The full title is, in fact, The Silent Friend: A Medical Work, On The Disorders Produced By The Dangerous Effects of Onanism, All It’s Dreadful Consequences Considered, Including Nervous and Sexual Debility, Impotency, &C., And On Venereal And Syphilitic Diseases, With Plain Directions For The Removal Of Secondary Symptoms, Gonorrhoea or Clap, Gleets, Strictures, Whites, And All Diseases Of The Urinary Passages, Without The Use of Mercury, Confinement, Or Hinderance from Business; Followed By General Instructions For The Perfect Restoration Of Those Who Are Incapacitated From Entering Into The Holy State Of Marriage; By The Evil Consequences Arising From Early Abuse, Or Syphilitic Infection. Which is really quite a mouthful. I definitely do not recommend looking up gleets, strictures or whites unless you’re sure you want to know. And gonorrhoea, for that matter.

[3] There were some who did challenge these ideas and practices, I just haven’t had a chance to really talk about them.

References

Helfand, W. H., 1989. President’s Address: Samuel Solomon and The Cordial Balm of Gilead. In Pharmacy in History, Vol. 31(4), pp. 151-159.

McLaren, A., 2007. Impotence: A Cultural History. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Perry, R. and Perry, L., 1841. The Silent Friend: A Medical Work, On The Disorders Produced By The Dangerous Effects of Onanism, All It’s Dreadful Consequences Considered, Including Nervous and Sexual Debility, Impotency, &C., And On Venereal And Syphilitic Diseases, With Plain Directions For The Removal Of Secondary Symptoms, Gonorrhoea or Clap, Gleets, Strictures, Whites, And All Diseases Of The Urinary Passages, Without The Use of Mercury, Confinement, Or Hinderance from Business; Followed By General Instructions For The Perfect Restoration Of Those Who Are Incapacitated From Entering Into The Holy State Of Marriage; By The Evil Consequences Arising From Early Abuse, Or Syphilitic Infection. Self published. [online] Available at: https://books.google.co.nz/books?id=i1t1p2YRahcC&dq=the+silent+friend&source=gbs_navlinks_s

Ritz, D., 2010. Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. Omnibus Press, London.

Watson, L., 2013. Tom Tiddler’s Ground: Irregular Medical Practitioners and Male Sexual Problems in New Zealand, 1858-1908. In Medical History, Vol. 57(4), p. 537-558. [online] Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3865952/#fnr16 

Wilson, B., 2008. Decency and Disorder: the Age of Cant 1789-1837. Faber and Faber.

The bitter waters of archaeology

This week on the blog, we delve – or dive, even (sorry, I can already tell you that this post will be filled with water puns) – into the bitter waters of the 19th century, by which I mean mineral and healing waters, not some kind of allegorical reference to a difficult period of the past. This watery submersion (sorry, can’t help myself) came about following the discovery of an unusual bottle in a recent assemblage that turned out to have originally contained German mineral water, exported from a small town called Friedrichshall to New Zealand from the 1870s onwards. It’s not the first example of German mineral water we’ve come across here in Christchurch and well, it got me thinking. And researching. Basically, I fell down the well (see what I did there?) into the world of healing waters and haven’t quite surfaced since.

Bottle base embossed with C. OPPEL / FRIEDRICHSHALL. The source of this descent into watery madness. Image: J. Garland.

Bottle base embossed with C. OPPEL / FRIEDRICHSHALL. The source of this descent into watery madness. Image: J. Garland.

The concept of water, specifically mineral water, as an elixir of health has been around for centuries – millennia, even. We’ve all heard stories of springs and pools that could miraculously cure the sick and restore the health of the ailing, in both the historical and fictional worlds. The notion of water – or rather, the ‘waters’ of certain places – as more than just a necessity of survival, as a life-giving (or life preserving) force is so prevalent in our collective psyche that it trickles through our pop culture, past (Jane Austen springs to mind) and present (Pirates of the Caribbean’s fountain of youth, for example).

During our period of study – the 19th and early 20th centuries – there are numerous references to springs, wells, pools, aquifers and other bodies of water with healing properties, sometimes bordering on the magical. The healing waters of Bath were, thanks to the Romans and Miss Austen, among many others, well-known for their alleged ability to cure anything from leprosy to rheumatism. There were several locations on the continent, including Royat in France, Pistyan in ‘Czecho-Slovakia’, Marienbad in Bohemia, Vichy in France, and Salsomaggiore in Lombardy. In California, the town of Carlsbad (not quite Carlsberg, as I thought for a while) was named after a famous Bohemian spa following the discovery of mineral water there in the 1880s. In Scotland, the well of St Maelrubha in Loch Maree, Ross-shire, “was credited with the wonderful powers of curing the insane” and, in possibly my favourite example, there was a pub in London that offered eye lotion made from the healing water in the cellar along with the normal beers and spirits. Apparently, the water contained high levels of zinc, which may have been “soothing to the eye.”

In which a publican has a strange clause in his lease regarding some mineral water in the cellar. Image:

In which a publican has a strange clause in his lease regarding some mineral water in the cellar. Image: Auckland Star 9/12/1932: 13.

New Zealand has its own tradition of healing waters, of course, the most famous of which is the thermal springs and waters at Rotorua. Other places in the country home to the miraculous springs of good health included Te Aroha, Puriri, and Waiwera. Dunedin soda water manufacturers the Thomson brothers also took advantage of the country’s natural resources and sold Wai-Rongoa (healing water), “the celebrated mineral water from the famed North Taeri Springs” during the early 20th century. Christchurch apparently tried to have healing waters, but the so-called mineral waters of Heathcote turned out just to be water. Nice try, Heathcote.

Advertisement for Wai-Rongoa, the healing water of the North Taeri Springs and Waiwera.

Advertisement for Wai-Rongoa, the healing water of the North Taeri Springs and the Waiwera Hot Springs. Image: Grey River Argus 21/09/1909: 4 and New Zealand Herald 15/05/1875: 4.

Archaeologically, here in Christchurch, the use of and belief in healing waters is represented through the bottled ‘bitter waters’ and ‘seltzer waters’ imported from Europe – like the Friedrichshall bottle – that survive in the archaeological record. To date, interestingly, all of the examples we’ve found have been German or Hungarian. We’ve mentioned the Nassau selter water bottles before on the blog, stoneware bottles that contained the waters of the Ober and Nieder Selters of Nassau, a Duchy (prior to 1866) and town in Imperial Prussia (after annexation in 1866). As well as these, and the aforementioned Friedrichshall bottle, we’ve also found examples of Hunyadi Janos, a Hungarian export which contained the waters of a spring in Ofen and was advertised as a medicinal remedy. Interestingly, both the Friedrichshall and Hunyadi products are referred to as ‘bitter waters’, marketed primarily as relief for constipation, obstruction of the bowels and congestions. Even more interestingly, Friedrichshall bitter waters also claimed that by “banishing lassitude and melancholy, [it] renders occupation a pleasure instead of labour”, while Hunyadi Janos was apparently “especially efficacious” in the treatment of obesity. So, you know, good to know.

Nassau selter waters (top left) and Hunyadi Janos bitter waters (top right), along with an advertisement for Hunyadi Janos extolling its healing properties. Images:

Nassau selter waters (top left) and Hunyadi Janos bitter waters (top right), along with an advertisement for Hunyadi Janos extolling its healing properties. Neither of these were supposed to taste very good, although I did find one advertisement that described the taste of bitter waters as “peculiarly pleasant”, which sounds like advertising speak if I ever heard it. Images: J. Garland (top left) Underground Overground (top right) and New Zealand Herald 2/11/1906: 2.

As a side note, searching for ‘bitter waters’ in old newspapers certainly brought home the melodrama of the 19th century. In addition to the actual products I was searching for, the phrase seems to have been something of a favourite among Victorian writers. Just a few of the examples I found included the bitter waters of sectarian intolerance, adversity, defeat, controversy, science (the bitter waters of science! Oh, science), national humiliation, penury, existence (existentialism was alive and well in the 1800s, apparently), class prejudices, tyranny and “the bitter waters of the cup of sorrow”, which seems excessively depressing.

Anyway, moving on. Back to the bitter waters of health. There’s two main things I find interesting about these Victorian healing waters. One is that, unlike so many of the other ‘medicinal’ remedies we’ve talked about here on the blog, the alleged health benefits of these mineral waters were not – and are not – wholly unfounded. They’re unlikely to have immediately cured rheumatism or leprosy through bathing (although there may have been other benefits, like the invigoration of muscles in warm water, relaxation etc.), but the ingestion of mineral waters may in fact have had some merit. I can’t speak for the specifics – presumably, mineral water didn’t really cure obesity or ‘render occupation a pleasure’ all by itself – but it’s fairly well established that certain minerals are an important part of human health and nutrition. Certainly, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it wasn’t just quacks advocating for their use (I’m not a health professional and am leery of saying anything wrong here, can you tell?).

The second thing is the apparent scepticism with which these claims of healing waters were treated which, again, runs contrary to so many of the weird and wonderful products we’ve talked about here before. There’s numerous instances of waters being tested to determine the levels of minerals present and compared to various sources around the world. If they didn’t contain the acceptable levels of minerals, they were publicly outed as ‘just water’ (Heathcote, definitely looking at you). It’s telling that the truly reputable mineral waters of the 19th century are all derived from springs and wells in areas where the geological characteristics of the surrounding land have made possible the absorption of minerals and salts into the very waters of the earth, so to speak. Like little old geothermal New Zealand or Hungary and Germany, apparently, if we’re looking just at Christchurch’s archaeological record.

It's not completely related, but it made me laugh and it certainly illustrates that scepticism (and sarcasm) was alive and well in the 19th century. Image:

It’s not completely related, but it made me laugh and it certainly illustrates that scepticism (and sarcasm) was alive and well in the 19th century. Image: Patea Mail 21/04/1881: 4.

There’s so many things about this whole notion of healing waters that is fascinating to me and I can’t quite articulate all of them (I guess I still haven’t really surfaced from that well I mentioned at the beginning). Not just the physical properties of the waters themselves, but the things they tell us about our view of ‘health’ – I’m thinking here about emphasis placed on characteristics like ‘purity’ and descriptors like ‘natural’, ‘fresh’ ‘cool’ and ‘clean’ – and the ways that view of health has changed and endured over the centuries. Even here and now, we might scoff at the notion of ‘healing waters’, and I imagine very few of you would go and buy a bottle of mineral water to stave off constipation, but water is still intrinsically associated with health and some waters are still considered better – healthier – than others. New Zealand spring water, for example, is marketed in part through its connection to the idea of this country as clean, green, pure and natural: in other words, healthy. In that regard, at least, we’re just following in the footsteps of our ancestors.

Jessie Garland

The fascist punishment: a foul taste used for foul purposes

It’s made from plant seeds named for their resemblance to a tick and has been known through history as the ‘golden nectar of nausea’ and the ‘fascist punishment’, among other things. When combined with chlorine, it forms a “a substance of horny character” (immature as I am, I may have laughed at that) and its taste has been commonly described as repulsive. We find the distinctive cobalt blue bottles it used to come in on 19th and early 20th century sites throughout Christchurch, where it was used to traumatise young children in the name of good health for decades.

Got it yet?

I am, of course, talking about castor oil, the scourge of the bowels (apparently), lubricator of flying machines and converter of communists (I’ll explain later, it’s kind of awful). Castor oil, which comes from the seeds of the Ricinus communis plant, has been cultivated in Europe since at least the 16th century, and was used during the 19th and early 20th centuries for a plethora of things, some of them more dubious than others.

Castor oil bottles, commonly found on 19th century archaeological sites in Christchurch and throughout New Zealand. Image: J. Garland.

Castor oil bottles, commonly found on 19th century archaeological sites in Christchurch and throughout New Zealand. As well as a laxative and purgative, castor oil was used to prevent flies from landing around children’s eyes, as a way of preventing gun powder from getting wet, as a perfume base and a beauty product (with the slogan ‘Feed your face with castor oil!) and as a lubricant for early flying machines. it was surprisingly versatile. Image: J. Garland.

Primarily, it was used for personal health care, mostly advertised as a laxative and/or purgative for cases of constipation and diarrhoea, over eating or general digestive problems. One specific account describes it as “a medicament for putting the internal economy in order after bouts of overeating,” which is just the most delightful turn of phrase. It was often given to young babies, especially earlier in the 19th century, although this was later discouraged as an unnecessary and occasionally dangerous thing to do (there are several accounts of babies or young children dying as a result of the wrongful administration of castor oil, usually due to reactions with other substances). It wasn’t particularly dangerous for adults, unless there were other health complications, although there were some cases of people dying after mistaking acid or caustic disinfectants like Lysol for castor oil (yikes).

In which both babies and castor oil are old fashioned. Image: Auckland Star 31/05/1924: 18.

In which both babies and castor oil are old fashioned. Image: Auckland Star 31/05/1924: 18.

A very very high number of the articles and advertisements for castor oil were concerned with the taste. Some described it as repulsive, some as sickening. One writer even used the phrase “the smooth, mucilaginous, euphorbiaceous, nauseous castor oil” which manages to both be technically accurate (translated as ‘sticky nausea inducing oil from the Euphorbiaciae taxa of plants’) and convey an almost onomatopoeic sense of revulsion. Needless to say, there are numerous recommendations on how to disguise the taste, both for yourself and any unsuspecting victims (usually children) you might have.

Among the recommended ways of hiding the taste of castor oil are: mixing it with scrambled eggs; ‘floating’ it on milk; putting it in lemonade; orange juice or other citrus flavours; hiding it in candy (this seems particularly cruel); and mixing it with cocoa to form ‘castor oil chocolate’ (which sounds awful, to be honest). The chocolate is particularly interesting, thanks to one account of a court case in Christchurch in which a local chemist was prosecuted for selling a product labelled castor oil chocolate that actually contained mostly phenolpthalen, a weak acid also used as a laxative. So, yeah, laxative chocolates. Who knew. Also still a thing, apparently.

Castor oil taste

Top: Even Tom hated the taste of castor oil. Image: Tom and Jerry Cartoon “Baby Puss” 1943. Bottom: 1928 joke about disguising the taste of castor oil. Image: Evening Post 23/03/1924: 21.

Apparently, a lot of these methods didn’t actually do a whole lot to disguise the taste of the oil. Neither did the ‘tasteless’ castor oils advertised actually manage to do what they claimed. Castor oil continued to taste bad enough that the taking of it was considered a punishment, especially by children. In fact, it was administered as a punishment, and this is where it gets interesting. And political. And a bit sinister. Because castor oil wasn’t just given as a punishment to school children (which is bad enough, when you think about the laxative properties…) but, particularly during the 20th century, was also forcibly given or used as a threat against adults – specifically and most commonly by fascists.

In which the Scottish lag behind the Americans in

In which the Scottish lag behind the Americans in methods by which to punish school children. Image: Auckland Star 7/06/1884: 4.

The first mention I found of this was a notice in the newspaper stating that several men had been imprisoned for “administering castor oil to communists,” which seemed a bit weird but kind of funny. Then I read some more and, yeah, not so funny. Castor oil was used by the Fascisti in 1920s and 1930s Italy to punish dissenters, subversives and enemies of fascism, basically by holding them down and forcing them to suffer from uncontrollable diarrhoea that could last for days. It served the purpose of exerting control over individuals, humiliating them and immobilising them, or at least restricting their movement (Strange History 2014). “Castor oil cudgels” became so synonymous with Mussolini and the Italian fascists that George Bernard Shaw had to write a defense of fascism in 1937 to explicitly state that the success of the ideology wasn’t just due to the use of castor oil.

In which a fascist Pinnochio forces

In which a fascist Pinocchio forces castor oil down the throat of a communist. Image via Overland Journal.

The use of castor oil in this way was adopted by other extremist political groups during the first half of the 20th century. The Nazis used it as a threat against newspaper editors who might consider attacking them in print; royalists in France used it in combination with tar to attack anti-royalist deputies; fascists in England used in an assault on a journalist; secret police in Cuba allegedly forced newspaper staff to drink it at gunpoint in 1934 to “forestall revolutionary outbreak” and it was used by the rebels in Spain in the late 1930s. It was, as it turns out, an exceedingly common tool of political punishment.

nazis and castor oil

In which the Nazis use castor oil to threaten the freedom of the press. Image: Auckland Star 5/11/1930: 7.

You can actually sort of see the beginnings of the use of castor oil in this way during the earlier 19th century: although not explicitly used as it was in the 20th century, it’s mentioned occasionally as a kind of social purgative, playing on the perceived purgative and laxative qualities of the product and applying them to society or sub-sets of society in general. One account talks about administering castor oil to the entire Department of Public Works, another of using it to “sweep away the all highly paid noodles and useless sinecurists” in the Railway Department. Another example attempted to solve the drunk ‘problem’ in America by offering drunkards a choice of castor oil or gaol (which kind of seems like a non-choice to me, but I guess not). The same principle was applied in Italy again during the 1920s, where it was less of a choice and more of a ‘if we catch you drunk, we will forcibly feed you castor oil to sober you up, totally for the good of society.’

In which drunkards are given a choice. Image:

In which drunkards are given a choice. Image: Press 1/12/1936: 11.

Now, there’s no evidence to suggest that the castor oil bottles we find in Christchurch were used for anything outside their health or mechanical-related functions, but it does make you think about a whole field of things our archaeological experience doesn’t usually touch on. I spent a while wondering if the use of castor oil as a political punishment was equivalent to the New Zealand trend of throwing random things at politicians, but I don’t think it is. It’s far more insidious than that, far too related to those characteristics of ‘purging’ – and not just because of the association with fascism and the abuses of Mussolini and Hitler. It’s the subversion of a household product – of the function of a household product – into a tool for social oppression and control. Proof that anything can become an instrument of torture (not to put too fine a word on it) if you add enough violence and a dash of radical ideology. It’s been over half a century since this particular form of that was popular, but don’t tell me that the thought’s not still a bit terrifying.

(I tried to think of a way to end this on a lighter note and get us back to the chocolate flavoured drugs and ‘substance of horny character’, but I couldn’t figure it out. Sorry. Blame fascism.)

Jessie Garland.

References:

Strange History, 2014. Mussolini’s Secret Weapon: Castor Oil. In Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog. [online] Available at: www.strangehistory.net. 

Tiso, G., 2014. Making real a fascist puppet. In Overland. [online] Available at: www.overland.org.au.

‘Is your breathing embarrassed?’

Many of you will probably have heard of Baxter’s Lung Preserver, a local Christchurch product created in the 19th century and still sold today. Bottles of Baxter’s, with the name of the product embossed on the sides, are common finds on late 19th century sites throughout Christchurch.

A 19th century bottle of Baxter's Lung Preserver found at a site in central Christchurch.

A 19th century bottle of Baxter’s Lung Preserver found at a site in central Christchurch. Image: Jessie Garland.

As far as we know, the product originated in the late 1860s in Christchurch as the brainchild of a man named John Baxter, who set himself up as a chemist in the young city. The actual start date of the business is a bit unclear, as we have one advertisement from 1884 that claims over 25 years of operation (suggesting a date of 1859; Taranaki Herald 1/02/1884: 4) and another from 1939 that claims a 75 year history (suggesting a date of 1864; Evening Post 16/10/1939: 13). The 1864 date seems more likely, since we know that John Baxter died in 1895 at the age of 49 (Star 14/09/1895: 4), meaning he was born in 1846. It’s a little unlikely that a 13 year old would start a pharmaceutical business, but an 18 year old doing so isn’t quite so much of a stretch.

Advertisement for Baxter's Lung Preserver from 1939.

Advertisement for Baxter’s Lung Preserver (Evening Post 16/10/1939: 13). 

Whatever the start date, it’s clear that by the 1870s, Baxter was well established in Christchurch, with premises on Cashel Street in something called ‘Medical Hall’ (Star 13/08/1875: 4) as well as on the corner of Victoria and Durham Street. The business continued at the Victoria Street address well into the 20th century, with his sons taking over after Baxter’s death in 1895 (Cyclopedia of New Zealand 1903).

Advertisement for Professor Brown's herbal remedies, sold at Baxter's Chemist, Christchurch.

Advertisement for Professor Brown’s herbal remedies, sold at Baxter’s chemist, Christchurch (Press 17/04/1885: 4).

Like George Bonnington, John Baxter became well known for his own creations, and also sold products created by other chemists. Along with his lung preserver, Baxter advertised Baxter’s Anti-Neuralgic ‘magic pills’, Compound Quinine Pills, cures for indigestion and remedies for liver complaints. He was also known to stock herbal remedies and ointments from a Professor O. P. Brown, as well as non-pharmaceutical objects like the 1885 Shakespearian Almanac and various other things (Press 17/04/1885: 4).

Like so many pharmaceutical remedies of the late 1800s, Baxter’s was often advertised in local newspapers using testimonials from apparently satisfied clients. Just a quick scroll through 19th century newspapers from all over the country brings up countless enthusiastic letters and quotes from “faculty, clergy and others” who claimed that Baxter’s Lung Preserver had cured them of their ills and succeeded where other remedies had failed (Press 04/08/1873: 2).

Testimonials for Baxter's Lung Preserver, Press 4/10/1883.

Testimonials for Baxter’s Lung Preserver (Press 4/10/1883).

Other advertisements played on concerns of the time and offered to cure a range of complaints, most of which were respiratory illnesses or problems – cough, colds, bronchitis, congestion of the lungs. My personal favourite offers Baxter’s Lung Preserver as a remedy for “embarrassed breathing” as well as the more common respiratory problems (Evening Post 29/01/1887: 2).

Advertisement for Baxter's Lung Preserver.

Advertisement for Baxter’s Lung Preserver (Evening Post 29/01/1887: 2).

We’re not sure exactly how effective Baxter’s Lung Preserver would have been at curing the things it claimed to fix, since we don’t know exactly what was in it. The modern version, still sold today, uses the active ingredient ipecacuanha (a Brazilian plant used as an expectorant and emetic; API Consumer Brands 2013), but we have no way of knowing if this is the same as the Victorian recipe. Some anecdotal information suggests that it might have had a high alcoholic content, which would be in line with many of the other patent medicines of the time, especially those directed at coughs and colds.

Whatever its ingredients, it’s clear from the wealth of historical information and archaeological finds, that Baxter’s Lung Preserver was a hugely popular product, not just in Christchurch, but throughout New Zealand. It’s a testament to Baxter’s legacy and the tenacity of his products that his business lasted so long after his death and his products continue to be sold in shops today.

Jessie Garland

References

API Consumer Brands. 2013. [online] Available at <http://www.api.net.nz/brands/consumer-division/baxters-range>.

Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Canterbury Provincial District]. 1903. [online] Available at <http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/>.

Evening Post. [online] Available at <http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz>.

Manawatu Standard. [online] Available at <http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz>.

Press. [online] Available at <http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz>.

Star. [online] Available at <http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz>.

Taranaki Herald. [online] Available at <http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz>.

West Coast Times. [online] Available at <http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz>.