“Black Oil” is an old English name for a horse liniment. It eventually came to be sold in America as “a never failing Remedy for Man and Beast.”
One variety was “Scarret’s Liniment” or “Black-oil for poll-evil, fistula, etc.” Its ingredients—Currier’s oil, oil of spike, and oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid!)—were given in an old receipt (recipe) book (Dr. Chase’s 1884). Its author quaintly added that Scarret “was an old English farrier [one who shoes or medically treats horses] who had to leave his country for his country’s good, and traveled extensively in this country.”
Another variety was “Black Oil Liniment” (1900). Among its several ingredients was something called “oil of stone” which itself contained six more ingredients, including crude petroleum and Barbadoes tar. The liniment was said to be “a very old veterinary preparation, formerly very much in use.”
A better-known example was “Hamilton’s Genuine Old English Black Oil.” Advertised by ca. 1880s broadsides as “The Greatest Healing Liniment of the Age!” it was claimed to be “Prepared from the Original Formula and known to have been used upwards of Two Hundred Years.” It was “For external use only and is a never failing Remedy for Man and Beast,” being “Warranted to cure” such conditions as old sores, chilblains, piles (hemorrhoids), chapped hands, burns and scalds, etc. Its veterinary uses included treatment of “Foot Rot in Cattle and Sheep,” and “sore teats.”
The identity of “Hamilton” is unmentioned, but the broadsides note that the liniment was “Prepared by James O’Neil, Frelighsburg, P.Q.” (i.e., Province of Quebec, Canada). (Frelighsburg was founded in 1790 by Americans who remained loyal to the British during the Revolutionary War. Its pioneer namesake was a Dr. Abram Freligh who apparently had no connection with the liniment.)
Still later the product was sold in octagonal aqua-glass bottles like the one pictured here (which measures about 13/4’’ diameter by 61/2’’ tall), embossed “HAMILTON’S/ OLD ENGLISH/ BLACK OIL.” It originally had a paper label wrapped around its five unembossed faces, identifying it as a product of Kimball Brothers & Co., Enosburg Falls, Vermont. (Another Kimball Brothers embossed bottle for the product was made of clear glass, its paper label advertising “HAMILTON’S OLD ENGLISH FORMULA BLACK OIL COMPOUND.”)
Kimball Brothers advertised the product as recently as 1948 (Fike 2006, 192–193), but it appears that English black oil—of whatever formulation—is no longer a popular cure, either for man or beast. It did have a long run.
“Black Oil Liniment.” 1900. In National Druggist, vol. 30, 1.
Dr. Chase’s Second Receipt Book. 1884. Toledo: N.p. cited in The Pharmaceutical Era, vol. 37 (April 18, 1907), 373.
Fike, Richard E. 2006. The Bottle Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Historic, Embossed Medicine Bottles. Caldwell, NJ: The Blackburn Press.