Artifact Corner: Medicine Bottles

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at two different medicine bottles that are in our apothecary. Both of these are glass bottles with paper labels. The first bottle is a tincture of Arnica from the druggist H.W. Cady here in Plattsburgh. The second is of Cherry Balsam also sold by H.W. Cady. One herbal we still use today for it’s curative purposes, the other, not so much. Let’s learn a bit more about these two medicines, and why we have them in our collections.

Fannie Delord Webb Hall was a self taught pharmacist, and she and her husband built an extension on their home, so that she would have a place to help the citizens of Plattsburgh. Fannie treated anyone who came to her door free of charge, and often was the only place the poor residents of Plattsburgh could go to receive medical assistance. In her small shop at the back of the home, Fannie kept all of her medical supplies, medicines, and medical texts. She was an avid reader who kept up to date on all of the latest medical improvements and best practices. Her goal was always to better the lives of the people in her community, and medicine was one way she accomplished this.

So, what is Arnica? Arnica Montana, also know as wolf’s bane, leopard’s bane, and mountain tobacco, is a member of the sunflower family. It originated in Europe, but is now found in East Asia, Europe, and North America. The Arnica plant’s flower and stems can be used for medicinal purposes. Arnica is primarily used as an anti-inflammatory. It can be used to help with muscle strain and reducing the healing time of severe bruising. Because of this, many sports medicine doctors today use Arnica to treat athletes. Arnica can be applied topically to the area of injury or soreness, but should never be applied to an open wound. Arnica can also be taken internally, for things such as concussions, but in very small doses. Like most medicines, ratios are very important. If you ingest too much Arnica, it could make you very ill.

Our second bottle contains a substance called Cherry Balsam. This title is a bit deceptive. While this medicine did contain a cherry extract to flavor it, the primary ingredients in this concoction were alcohol and opiates. Each druggist would have their own ratio of opioids, and therefore each bottle of Cherry Balsam could contain completely different ingredients. Cherry Balsam was used to treat minor concerns like colds and coughs, all the way up to incurable diseases like consumption, better known today as tuberculosis. While this elixir may have helped with the discomfort of the patients ailment, it was not actually helping the problem. This was purely pain and symptom relief, thanks to the myriad of drugs in it. In the Victorian period, drugs such as cocaine and heroin were commonly used in medicine. They do provide temporary relief from pain, but they are highly addictive, like modern pain killers.

Our bottles no longer contain their original contents. We have so many bottles from the late Victorian/early Edwardian period, that contained substances that can be life threatening if consumed. Therefore, we had all of the contents safely disposed of. Victorian medicine could be dangerous, so before trying any medicinal recipes or herbal remedies, please consult your doctor! Our bottles and their paper labels are in quite good condition, and we are so lucky to have them in our collections. For more information about medicine in the mid to late 1800’s come visit us at the museum. We will be opening for the season June 25th! Thanks so much for stopping by.

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,