St. Jacob’s Oil, a liniment, was one of the common proprietary remedies for rheumatism and other aches and pains in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its advertisements were not only painted on barns but on fences and even rocks, proclaiming, “St. Jacob’s Oil Conquers Pain.” Sometimes the remedy was touted in verse (Fike 2006, 195):
Seek you a cure,
easy and sure
For aching sprains
or hurts or pains,
Of every sort,
in any part.
Be of good cheer,
the secret’s here:
And if you heed
what here you read,
Your pains you’ll end,
your ailments foil;
For you will send
for “ST. JACOB’S OIL.”
August Vogeler (1819–1908) came to the United States from Germany in his early twenties and by 1845 had become a drug manufacturer, operating as A. Vogeler & Co., Baltimore. In the 1870s he partnered with his eldest son, Charles A., and one John H. Winkleman, and sometime after 1878 they began to manufacture and promote what their early embossed bottles spelled (in German) “ST. JAKOBS OEL [sic].” (See Figure 1.) (Note: St. is the abbreviation for the German sankt, “saint.”)
By 1881, advertisements for the liniment were appearing in newspapers across the states (like one from the Sioux County Herald, published in Orange City, Iowa). The ads proclaimed the oil as “The Great German Remedy for Rheumatism” as well as for such afflictions as gout and “all other Pains and Aches.”
According to a correspondent for the British Medical Journal (“St. Jacob’s Oil” 1894), the liniment had been analyzed and consisted of the following ingredients (with percentages): turpentine with traces of camphor (82.407), ether (10.000), alcohol (5.000) Carbolic acid (2.018), capsicum (0.400), and aconite (0.0132), plus a small amount (unmeasured) of origanum, “probably employed for scenting purposes.” The capsicum (from cayenne pepper) was common to liniments and intended to impart warmth to the skin. In combination with the fast-evaporating ether and alcohol, the liniment probably acted much like today’s icy-hot rubs.
Another source, The Wood Library Museum of Anesthesiology, describes the product as “a turpentine-ether-alcohol tincture” and gives the percentage of aconite at 2%. Aconite is a deadly alkaloid of Monkshood—also known as Wolfsbane and Jacob’s Chariot (Kadans 1970, 20). The manufacturers “spuriously advertised” the liniment “as prepared by German monks from the Black Forest” (“Neuralgia Man” 2013).
After the Pure Food and Drug Act took effect at the beginning of 1907, runaway claims of patent medicines began to be reigned in. St. Jacob’s packaging of 1913 admitted it was not “intended to perform any miracles” but only “Intended to Help Relieve Pain” of various common conditions. It was then noted to contain chloroform (possibly as a replacement for the ether). Eventually sold to first one company and then another, it was marketed as late as 1942 (Fike 2006, 195–196).
Fike, Richard E. 2006. The Bottle Book. Caldwell, NJ: The Blackburn Press.
Kadans, Joseph M. 1970. Modern Encyclopedia of Herbs. West Nyack, NY: Parker Publishing Co.
“Neuralgia Man.” 2013. Online at https://woodlibrarymuseum.org/archives/item/49/neuraalga-man-st-jacobs-oil; accessed October 9.
“St. Jacob’s Oil.” 1894. British Medical Journal, May 5, 995.