“Mouth Elixir”: Bell-shaped Dr. Bell Bottle

May 11, 2017


This distinctive bell-shaped bottle (see photo) is embossed on its bottom, “DR. V. C. BELL’S MOUTH ELIXIR.” What on earth was that?

Described in ads (as one in The Maccabaean, published by the Federation of American Zionists, January 1907, p. 40) as “Dr. Bell’s Scientific Mouth Elixir,” it was, in a word, a mouthwash. Or as described by its manufacturer, it was “a highly fragrant antiseptic mouth wash for healing, soothing and hardening inflamed tissues of the mouth, purifying the breath and destroying the germs which cause the teeth to decay.” It promised, “Will Positively Tighten Loose Teeth” (i.e., presumably by early treatment of periodontal disease, but that seems somewhat of an overstatement).

The rinse was “prepared under the direct supervision of Dr. Victor C. Bell, A.B., D.D.S., the authority on teeth.” It came in two sizes, priced at 25 and 50 cents. I would expect that the blown-in-a-mold bottle shown here from my collection (only about 21/8” diameter by 31/4” tall) is the small size. The product contained alcohol (as I learned from a N.Y. customs action) and no doubt some flavoring, but I have no other information about its formula.

I found a biography of Dr. Bell in The Druggist’s Circular of January 1907 (p. 64). After graduating from college and dental school, he became, in 1889, a practicing dentist and a senior instructor in both the New York College of Dentistry and the New York Dental School. He emphasized saving rather than pulling teeth, and developed his elixir as a treatment of Riggs’ disease (an historical term for periodontitis). He wrote textbooks on tooth care used in New York City public schools where he also became the lecturer on dental hygiene. He won a gold medal at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition for an exhibit on dental surgery and preparations.

Bell established his American Dentifice Company, incorporated in New York in 1905, which marketed both his mouthwash and a tooth powder. He advertised in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Washington Post, and many other newspapers in 1907. However, I found that, despite an initial capital stock of $250,000, which was increased in 1907 to $1,000,000, the enterprise went into bankruptcy (as reported in the January 1907 Practical Druggist and Pharmaceutical Review of Reviews, p. 304).

In 1908 Bell patented a toothbrush (U.S. Pat. No. 888, 310) and the next year was involved in planning a “Pure Drug Show” in Madison Square Garden. This was in response to the new Pure Food and Drug Act which took effect at the beginning of 1907. The act forced many nostrum peddlers to list their contents and to desist in making outrageous claims. In contrast, Dr. Bell seems to have embraced the law.