Then and Now: Nineteenth Century Medicine

There’s definitely a cold going around in the GRA lab!  We’ve got our Tylenol and DayQuil to keep sneezing at a minimum, but ever wonder how people in the 19th Century managed to stave off a cold in the winter?  Our plethora of medicine bottles from the site can give us some clues.  Based on the shape of the bottles, it’s possible to determine whether they came from drug stores or contained one of the popular “patent” medicines of the times – these drug compounds were rarely ever patented, but contained a combination of vegetable extracts and alcohol and were often sold as part of a family-operated side business.

The most common types of medicine bottles used by drug stores were rectangular, “French” square, oval, and cylindrical, examples of which you can see here:




The notoriety of various “patent” medicines in the nineteenth century is a topic of interest even today – individuals were able to get away with claiming that these dubious concoctions (often containing harmful ingredients) would cure specific diseases and ailments, or even all of them!  A tax introduced in 1862 that was more harsh on alcohol in liquors than in medicines led to a rise in popularity of a type of medicine called “bitters” – these were essentially alcohol with added herbs that were claimed to have curative properties.


One specific example of these proprietary medicines we’ve found at Riverside are bottles embossed with “Ms. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup,” pictured above.  This was used primarily to soothe infants who were teething, but was also popular with adults as it contained an opium derivative!  Public pressure in the beginning of the 20th Century led to its decrease in popularity and a change in ingredients, although Ms. Winslow’s continued to be sold almost into the 1950s.  Thank goodness for modern FDA regulations!


One thought on “Then and Now: Nineteenth Century Medicine

  1. Great job! Really well done photographs. I’d enjoy reading a follow up post taking the discussion of this material culture further. Perhaps on the efficacy of drugs and consumer choice among parents taking care of their children like with “Ms. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup?” There is some great medical anthropological research on how medicines are thought to be essential to childhood disorders/diseases and given the high mortality rates in the 19th century who wouldn’t be trying just about anything!?. Of course, teething isn’t a disease or disorder but consumption of such a patent medicine does say something interesting about a parent’s desire to manage their child’s pain [or their own]. And certainly 19th century allopathic medicine was neither gentle nor interested in discussing treatment with patients!

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