In patent-medicine parlance, the term balsam, originally describing an aromatic resin, came to apply generally to “an aromatic oily or resinous medicinal preparation, for healing wounds or soothing pain,” according to The Oxford English Dictionary (1971).
Among early products using the name was Robert Turlington’s Balsam, an English cure-all patented in 1744. By 1750 it was available in bottles, and by 1754 it was being sold in vials in an attempt to eliminate both bottle re-use and product counterfeiting. In the 1760s Turlington’s Balsam was being sold in the United States (Fike 2006, 27).
Quite often balsams were cough medicines of their day, including such products as Abietene Cough Balsam, Dr. J.S. Clark’s Balsam for the Throat & Lungs, Congreve’s Celebrated Balsamic Elixir for Cough & Asthma, Mrs. Dinsmore’s Cough & Croup Balsam, Hall’s Pulmonary Balsam (a “Safe and Speedy Cure for Diseases of the Throat and Lungs”), and Masten’s Balsam of Horehound (“for throat, lungs, & etc.”), and so on. (However, some, like J.E. Gombault’s Caustic Balsam, were liniments. Other products used the term balsam as well, including a diarrhea remedy and Parker’s Hair Balsam.)
Such a product was Dr. Haynes’ Arabian Balsam, which appears to have originated in the 1850s. An advertisement in 1858 read: “DR. HAYNES ARABIAN BALSAM. 40,000 Bottles Sold In Less Than Two Years Without Advertising. Prepared and sold by the inventor, A. Haynes, M.D., South Braintree, Mass.” The twelve-paneled, aqua, mold-blown bottle shown in the accompanying photo (about 4 1⁄4 ’’ high) is embossed, “HAYNES ARABIAN BALSAM” and (circling below the neck) “PROVIDENCE, R.I.” This suggests it dates after circa 1871 when it was being sold from that city by Jesse Miller & Sons. (The company was later acquired about 1876 by Ebenezer Morgan and his partner James Pidge, but Morgan bought out Pidge in 1885 and, at his death in 1890, the firm became E. Morgan and Sons, continuing as such into the 1960s.) (Fike 2006, 25; “Dr. Haynes” 2014).
Perhaps the only thing “Arabian” about the product was its name (there was also a Cheeseman’s Arabian Balsam), probably intended to lend a touch of the exotic. Actually its contents were rather typical of a medicine sold as an expectorant and counterirritant for the relief of colds and the coughs and hoarseness stemming from colds. Its active ingredients were listed as “Rectified Oil of Turpentine and Oil of Thyme in a Bland Vegetable Oil Base.” Herbalists considered thyme “an effective antiseptic for the whole system.” Turpentine—now considered “dangerous” taken internally—was once thought effective for treating diseases involving mucous membranes, especially those of the respiratory organs. It was also commonly used in liniments, and indeed Haynes was also claimed effective for sprains and bruises, minor burns, stiff muscles, and insect stings and bites (“Dr. Haynes” 2014; Chevallier 1996, 310–311; Kadans 1970, 188).
Other balsams sometimes indicated a major ingredient (if true) in the product name, among them the following: A. Davis Ashley’s Honey Balsam, Barnes & Park Balsam of Wild Cherry and Tar, Burk’s White Pine Balsam, Butler’s Balsam of Liverwort, Dr. Otto’s Spruce Gum Balsam, Dr. Russell’s Balsam of Horehound and Sarsaparilla, Wakefield’s Blackberry Balsam Compound, and Williams Balsamic Cream of Roses. (However, it is hard to know just what was behind A.D. Ashley’s Red Sea Balsam, Dr. Bell’s Balsam of Alpine Moss, or Kirk’s Irish Moss Cough Balsam.)
Some other balsams of interest were Brant’s Indian Balsam (Indians were popularly believed to have secret healing knowledge), Buchan’s Hungarian Balsam of Life (from London), B. Denton’s Healing Balsam “For Man or Beast” (a phrase often used for liniments), Dr. Scott’s Electric Cough Balsam, Duconges’ Pectoral Balsam Syrup, Egyptian Cough Balsam, and Dr. D. Jayne’s Carminative Balsam (a carminative dispelled gas from the alimentary canal), among numerous others.
Many of the balsams no doubt provided marginal relief—either through their ability to soothe a throat or by means of the placebo effect. For one who needed relief, at least something was being done, while, meantime, one’s cold was running its course.
Chevallier, Andrew. 1996. The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants. New York: D.K. Publishing.
“Dr. Haynes’ Arabian Balsam.” 2014. Online at https://www.littlerhodybottleclub.org/research/arabianbalsam.html; accessed December 1, 2014.
Fike, Richard E. 2006. The Bottle Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Historic, Embossed Medicine Bottles. Caldwell, NJ: The Blackburn Press.
Kadans, Joseph M. 1970. Modern Encyclopedia of Herbs. West Nyack, NY: Parker Publishing.
Oxford English Dictionary, The Compact Edition of. 1971. New York: Oxford University Press.
Tabor’s Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary. 1940. Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis Co.