Fink’s Magic Oil was a supposed cure for rheumatism, cholera, and numerous other ills, developed by Ohioan Henry George Greatrake Fink, an erstwhile Methodist minister who moved to Pittsburgh to reap a worldly fortune in the patent medicine business.
Fink (1826–1910) was supposedly motivated to change careers by “ill health” rather than “lucre.” How he conjured up the formula for his “magic oil” has not been explained, but—although lacking any medical background—Fink claimed his product was a cure for acne, asthma, boils, bronchitis, burns, coughs and colds, colic, cholera, deafness, earache, eczema, frozen feet, and so on through the alphabet, to poisons, rheumatism, ringworm, sore feet, water tetter, and much more (“On Beyond” 2011). It was intended for both external and internal use.
What was magical about Fink’s oil? Its secret ingredient was alcohol—at 87%, a whopping amount even by patent-medicine standards. With the listing of ingredients later mandated by the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1907, it was still not until the 1930s that FDA agents seized a shipment of the product. Being made after Fink’s death by H.G. Fink Laboratories, in Cincinnati, it was charged with being “misbranded.” It was not in fact an “oil,” being mostly alcohol, albeit then watered down to 48%, with tiny amounts of cassia (a cinnamon substitute) and sassafras (a mild stimulant) (“On Beyond” 2011; Goldstein 2015, 102, 249). “Misbranded” also meant the ingredients could not cure the ailments claimed.
Pittsburgh city directories first list the Henry Fink Laboratory in 1856. Company offices in 1899 included Springdale, Pennsylvania (Fike 2006, 192). A bottle from the latter, a little over 4’’ tall, is of clear glass embossed “MAGIC OIL” on the front and “FINK’S” and “SPRINGDALE, PA” on the sides (Fink’s 2016).
The early, small aqua bottle in my collection (again see photo)—embossed “FINK’S/MAGIC OIL//PITTSBURGH, PA// COPYRIGHTED”—is only 13/4 x 7/8 x 45/8’’ high overall. I filled it with water to the mid-line of the neck, then used a metric graduate to measure that amount: approximately 40cc (or 40 ml) or about 1.35 US fluid ounces. That was not a lot of product, but at 87% alcohol it was 174 proof—roughly four times that of today’s standard shot of whiskey.
The word “Copyrighted” indicates that the product—like most such nostrums—was not actually patented. Patenting required the composition to be stated and, since patents were published, a patented formula would no longer be secret. Moreover, when the patent expired, the product became public property. Still, the term “patent medicines” popularly refers to nostrums sold directly to the public, while “proprietaries” were sold only to physicians (Nostrums n.d.).
Fike, Richard E. 2006. The Bottle Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Historic Embossed Medicine Bottles. Caldwell, NJ: The Blackburn Press.
Fink’s Magic Oil. . . . 2016. Online at www.antiquebottleshop.com/detail.asp?id=913&n=FINKS-MAGIC-OIL-SPRINGDALE-PENNSYLVANIA-1890S-MED; accessed August 12, 2016.
Goldstein, Daniel A. 2015. The Historical Apothecary Compendium: A Guide to Terms and Symbols. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing.
Nostrums and Quackery. N.d. (originally published in 3 vols., 1911–12, 1921, 1936). Chicago Press of American Medical Assn.; reprinted London: Forgotten Books, 2015.
On Beyond Holcombe: H.G.G. Fink, Manufacturer. 2011. Online at https://1898revenues.blogspot.com/2011/07/on-beyond-holcombe-h-g-g-fink.html; accessed August 11, 2016; accessed August 11, 2016.