An Antique “Temperance Drink”

February 24, 2012

On February 21, 2012, CFI Libraries intern Christian Exoo (a graduate student in Library Science at the University of Buffalo) gave me the two items pictured here, an antique medicine bottle and accompanying advertising booklet, for my medical quackery collection (part of which may be viewed on Christian discovered the artifacts in the wall of a late-nineteenth-century house in Canton, New York, during a renovation. Both items were new to me, and, additionally, complemented each other with helpful information.

Neither the booklet nor the bottle is dated. The former’s (eight) leaves (sixteen 4 x 6 1/4” pages) are of yellowed, brittle paper suggesting wood-pulp content (confirmed in my lab by microscopic and chemical tests on a fragment) and indicating a probably post-Civil War date. Indeed, research shows that the Burlington, Vermont, proprietors (“Successors to Rev. N.H. Downs, J.M. Henry & Sons, John F. Henry & Co., and Henry and Johnson” took their then-current name of Henry, Johnson & Lord in 1873 (or 1877: see Richard E. Fike, The Bottle Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Historic, Embossed Medicine Bottles, Caldwell, NJ: The Blackburn Press, 1987, pp. 31, 63).

The bottle itself, however (a blown-in-the-mold variety measuring about 6 5/8 x 2 1/2” d.), bears a different name. Embossed (on five of its twelve sides) is “DR. BAXTER’S / MANDRAKE BITTERS / LORD BRO’S [sic] / PROPRIETORS/BURLINGTON, VT.” I hypothesize that the Lord Brothers marketed this medicine before one of them, Loren B. Lord, helped form the Henry, Johnson & Lord business. Mr. Lord may have had a quantity of the “Lord Bros.” bottles—or at least the mold in which they were blown—and the company could have decided that the updated paper label would allow the bottles to be used until perhaps a new mold could be made.

Stuck on our bottle is a “proprietary” tax stamp offering further evidence, and Christian looked up its dates of first and last issuance: October 6, 1875, and April 28, 1883, thus effectively bracketing the time of the bottle’s sale. The product was advertised in the New Hampshire Register, Farmers Almanac & Business Directory, 1881 (according to Fike’s book).

The advertising booklet specifically heralds “Dr. Henry Baxter’s Anti-Bilious and Jaundice MANDRAKE BITTERS.” It is touted as a remedy for “any of the diseases that follow a torpid or diseased Liver—such as Jaundice, Dyspepsia, Bilious diseases, Foul Stomach, Costiveness [constipation], or Weakness”—all for 25 cents a bottle. (The booklet also promotes “Elder” N.H. Downs’ Vegetable Balsamic Elixir for treating not only colds, but pleurisy, influenza, bronchitis—even consumption and “Spitting of Blood.” In addition there were Henry’s Vegetable Worm Lozenges, intended as a vermifuge or “Remedy for Worms,” and Henry & Johnson’s Armica and Oil Liniment, a “warming and penetrating rub,” plus Dr. Henry’s Electric Ointment which “cures Scratches, Calks, Sores, Galls, and Flesh Wounds.”)

While the label of the “Mandrake Bitters” bottle states the product is made of roots and bark, it does not specifically claim that it actually contains Mandrake—a Mediterranean perennial. Mandrake’s vaguely human-shaped root led to folklore that on being uprooted it emitted a powerful scream. Today it is known to be toxic and not to be taken internally. Perhaps Dr. Baxter’s concoction contained some “American Mandrake”—i.e., mayapple—but it too is toxic and “Even a tiny amount of dried mayapple root powder is an extremely powerful laxitive” (Thomas Broken and Bear Squier, Herbal Folk Medicine, New York: Henry Holt, 1997, 130). Probably the bitters contained several different vegetable compounds and—like most bitters—it had a significant amount of alcohol.

Interestingly, as the temperance movement spread (The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was organized in 1874), many Americans began to replace their whiskey and gin with more socially acceptable substitutes, notably bitters. An article in the October 7, 1887, Los Angeles Herald mentioned analysis of many “so-called temperance drinks” for their alcohol content. Baxter’s Mandrake Bitters was listed at 16.5 per cent, or 33 proof. Small wonder people felt better with each dose!