It’s that time of year again. The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting colder, and the number of people coughing and sneezing in the office is increasing day by day. Flu season is here, and with it comes the variety of cough mixtures, cough lollies, honey and lemon teas, and other concoctions all designed to try and make it through the day without your colleagues wanting to evict you from the office.
Our Victorian forebearers also struggled with the common cold, but not to fear, they too had cough medicine. We’ve talked about pharmaceutical products on the blog before (see here, and here and here), mainly about how most Victorian medicines claimed to be made from ‘secret recipes’ that could not only cure your cough, but also improve your complexion, grow back your receding hairline, stop a heart attack, cure epilepsy and fix any and all gastro related incidents (I’m exaggerating a little bit here, but only a little). Every time we research a new Victorian medicine it always feels like the claims get more and more extraordinary. So, without further ado, here’s five more Victorian medicine bottles that we’ve found on archaeological sites.
Are you wanting something that will help with consumption, wasting diseases, nervous debility, indigestion, constipation, dyspepsia, cholera, rickets, bone softening, bronchitis, coughs, colds and more? Then look no further than Maltine. Maltine was an extract of malted barley, wheat and oats that was highly fortified with alcohol. The product was first created by John Carnrick (1837-1903), a pharmacologist who invented a range of different pharmaceutical substances (Sullivan 2009). The product was marketed firstly as a nutritional supplement for those who were struggling to eat due to illness but, like most Victorian medicines, could be used to cure any and all ailments. Along with plain Maltine, there was Maltine with Cod Liver Oil, Maltine with Peptones, and Maltine with Coca Wine. For those of you not familiar with Victorian medicines, coca wine is literally wine and cocaine. It’s no surprise that Maltine with Coca Wine was the most popular product, selling around 10,000 bottles a year in the late nineteenth century (Sullivan 2009).
When contemplating which particular brand of medicine to take, appearance is an important thing to consider. Luckily Alfred Bishop’s Granular Citrate of Magnesia is “perfectly white and delicately clean” meaning there’s no worries there. Bishop’s advertisements for his product talk a lot about the medicine’s looks; in another the granules are described as “handsome in appearance”. Now, the fact that Bishop focused so much on the appearance of his product in advertisements is somewhat hilarious given that his Granular Citrate of Magnesia was actually just a laxative. The product likely contained a mixture of sodium bicarbonate and tartaric acid, common ingredients in laxatives of the day (Era Formulary 1893). Of course, the product wasn’t obviously advertised as a laxative, rather it was said to help “stomach ailments”, but we all know what that means.
Speaking of laxatives, here’s another good one: J. C. Eno’s Effervescing Fruit Salts. Eno’s Fruit Salts were created by the pharmacist James Crossley Eno in the mid-nineteenth century and were advertised as a remedy for constipation, bowel complaints and general health issues (Colonist 11/07/1907, Otago Daily Times 20/10/1893). Similar to Bishop’s citrate magnesia, the product was a mixture of sodium bicarbonate and tartaric acid, with a bit of Rochelle salt thrown in as well (Era Formulary 1893). I’m not going to say much more about the product, because the advertisement below really speaks for itself. Who would have thought a laxative was so crucial to the development of the British Empire.
I’m very sceptical about the claims made by this next product. Singleton’s Golden Eye Ointment could cure all eye disorders, everything from helping sore eyes, to getting rid of styes and ulcers, helping inflammation, fixing weak and watery eyes, and restoring eyelashes (Evening Star 18/08/1929; New Zealand Mail 25/11/1903; 21/12/1899; Press 18/06/1936). In fact the ointment was such an amazing product that it was able to cure a large number of British soldiers who eyes were injured from the hot desert sand in Egypt (Barker 2019). The reason why I’m so sceptical is because the ointment contained quicksilver (The Mirror 1834). Quicksilver is of course liquid mercury. The mercury was heated with nitric acid until the product evaporated, leaving behind salts. These salts were then mixed with clarified butter to produce an ointment that was rubbed on the eyelids at night. I’m not a chemist or a doctor, but I imagine rubbing anything that contains mercury on your eyelids is not going to be safe.
Whilst the nineteenth century was renowned for its patent medicines, that made extraordinary claims despite containing dubious ingredients, it was also a period of many medical advances. One of those advances was germ theory and the realisation that cleanliness and sterilisation would help prevent infection and disease. An important background figure in these advances was Dr. Frederick Crace Calvert, a Manchester analytical chemist. Calvert was the first person to commercially produce carbolic acid (phenol), doing so under his company F. C. Calvert and Co. Calvert’s phenol products were used by Joseph Lister in his work on antiseptic surgery, and had many far-reaching applications (Grace’s Guide 2017).
So there you have it, medicine in the nineteenth century. A mixture of products that actually helped, products that might do something, and products that will probably poison you in the long run.