Waaaaaay back when I worked at the veterinary hospital, I convinced all the staff to set aside bottles for me. I collected HUNDREDS. Mostly little tiny vaccine bottles, but some of various sizes and shapes that I kept seperately, and all of which I used for art progects. Well, I’m finally running out of the kooky shaped bottles (though I still have plenty of the tiny ones) and I decided on a whim that I should do one last big art progect to use them up.
Basically, I’ve been becoming aware that one can find a LOT of kooky old bottle lables online. If you do a bit of searching, you can find an astonishing array of labels and advertisements for crazy ass medicines, tinctures, tablets, powders, salves, suppositories and god knows what else.
Radioactive toothpaste, laudanum, paregoric (camphorated tincture of opium), cannabis extract, cocaine toothache drops, Bayer brand Heroin, Belladonna, Digitalis, Chloroform, Strychnine…
The seemingly more innocuous but possibly just as bad: “Herb Tonic” (this really could be anything), Cod Liver Oil Tablets, Extract of Bitter Almond, Tar and Wild Cherry Cough Syrup, Syrup Squills (I have no idea), Tincture of Fishberries (no idea but apparently is poison), Tooth Essence (sounds ok, but again, for some reason “poison” apparently), Lime Water, “Liniment” (no more specific labeling was necesarry apparently), Boiled Oil (No more labelling, but the text on the label is bold so apparently it’s self explanitory?),
It’s actually pretty mind blowing how much snake oil there was- and I suppose is to this day- available on the market. In historical terms though, we have it pretty good. Our miricle pills are usually just ineffective at their worst- whereas you can imagine the long term effects of radioactive water, cigarettes, condoms (yep), toothpaste, tablets, hand cleaner, suppositories (for sexual prowess!), cigars, and even shoe polish.
Imagine hearing about the amazing health benefits of RADIUM. You go out and buy all the radioactive stuff you can find (this was a really big fad, mind you)- and before you know it your hair is falling out in clumps and your lower jaw falls off.
Eben Beyers, a steel tycoon in Pittsburgh was a big fan of Radithor Radioactive Health Water, and drank it regularly until he died of radiation poisoning in 1931.
“Byers began taking enormous doses of Radithor, which he believed had greatly improved his health, drinking nearly 1400 bottles. In the process, he subjected himself to more than three times the acute lethal radiation dose. By 1930, when Byers stopped taking the remedy, he had accumulated significant amounts of radium in his bones resulting in the loss of most of his jaw. Byers’ brain was also abscessed, and holes were forming in his skull. He died from radium poisoning on March 31, 1932. He is buried in Allegheny Cemetary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in a lead lined coffin… The Wall Street Journal ran a headline reading “The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off”, after his death.”
Above is a link to a really amazing link to a story about “The Radium Girls”, a group of women who worked in the factory that painted the little glow-in-the-dark numbers onto watches. The paint was, for many years, Radium based- and the brushes they used would wear out quickly. The factory charged the girls for extra brushes, so to keep them usable, the ladies would twist the bristles on their tongues. You can imagine the results.
It’s a really tragic read, but well worth the depressing afterefects- at least YOU won’t glow in the dark when you’re done.
Ok, ok- so ANYWAY- there were a LOT of quacks- and a LOT of snake oil out there. You get the picture.
I love the history surrounding this stuff. It has led me to collect a ton of weird stuff- including a huge collection of old medicine labels. Yesterday I printed out a bunch of them and carefully put them on the bottles that I’d had set away- the results are totally awesome. Needless to say, I’ll be making a bunch more of them today.
Many years ago I made my own kooky medecine bottle collection- Dr. Horrors- which included “Hydrotherapy Calming Solution”, “Sleep-Tite coma inducing serum”, and “Mania Reducing Salve”, just to name a couple. But the
fun part about using real labels- is that these are REAL LABLES. Sure I based the “Dr. Horrors” on real treatments and procedures (phlebotomy clotting powder, phrenological ink for the marking of scalps, and so on)- these bottles that I’m making are of medicines that people actually used.
It’s really interesting- and I’m not sure what I’m going to do with all of these bottles once I’m done labelling them- When I made the Dr. Horrors, I filled them with various available powders and liquids and sealed them- but I don’t have any miniature corks on hand, so I’m not sure, maybe I’ll just keep them as a testament to how little we actually understand about our world. It’s a cautionary tale- the history of medicine- and it would be wise of us to listen and remember.