More on St. Jacob’s

January 15, 2014

I recently acquired another bottle (see previous blog) advertising St. Jacob’s Oil. However, I was immediately suspicious of it, not the least reason being the price—too cheap for such an item. It was also unlike previous bottles of that famous old liniment—in shape and size as well as means of manufacture: it had not been blown in a mold but was produced by an automatic bottle machine. Could it simply be a more modern example of the product?

Later, I read the entire label (see photo), which I noted was larger than the bottle’s allotted panel, and I decided that it read more like a text for an ad than a label for the product. I asked CFI Librarian Tim Binga to see what he could find, and he soon discovered very similar newspaper ads. One was in the Sioux County Herald, published in Orange City, Iowa, on August 11, 1881, page 3. What was an 1881 ad doing on a post-1900 bottle?

The answer was not far away. Ultraviolet-light examination revealed the paper contained modern optical brighteners. (These had betrayed the notorious fakes, the “Hitler diaries,” which likewise emitted a strong white fluorescence under UV.) Such whitening agents were not used in paper before the 1950s. (See Joe Nickell, Real or Fake: Studies in Authentication. Lexington, UP of Ky., 2009, 23.)

Next, I examined the label using a stereomicroscope. This revealed a telltale patterning of tiny red and green dots, indicating that the printing was not done on an old press but was instead produced by a modern color printer. Clearly, the artifact consisted of a twentieth-century bottle onto which a fake nineteenth-century label had been pasted.

The only mystery remaining was why someone would go to so much trouble to dummy up a bottle that then sold for only $5. (Perhaps someone produced it as a lark and it later ended up being sold by an unknowing dealer? Then I came across another, priced at $30.) The result cannot even be termed a “replica,” because there was never a St. Jacob’s Oil bottle like this. So why did I buy it, when I believed it bogus in the first place? Well, I thought it would provide an excellent item for study and the price was right. Indeed, the fake was a bargain for the lessons I now share with readers.