Artifact Corner: Listerine Bottle

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at a small glass bottle that can be found in the apothecary in the museum. This bottle belonged to Fannie Delord Webb Hall, and was part of the medicine she administered to the many patients she treated from the home here in Plattsburgh. The glass bottle still contains the original paper label, and even contains the original cork, and some of the bottle’s contents remain as well! Let’s learn a bit more about Listerine, and antiseptics in general.

Throughout history, surgery has been a very dangerous thing to undergo. Even if you had the best surgeons in the world, and the surgery was successful, you could still be in real danger from bacterial infection such as sepsis or gangrene. Antibiotics would not be discovered until 1928, and so for everyone undergoing a surgical procedure prior to that, infection was a real concern. In 1864, while working at Glasgow University as Professor of Surgery, Joseph Lister was introduced to Pasteur’s germ theory of disease, and he decided to apply it to the problem of surgical infections. He looked for ways to prevent germs from entering a wound by creating a chemical barrier—which he called an antiseptic—between the surgical wound and the surroundings. The chemical he chose to use was carbolic acid, which killed the germs on contact. As the number of surgery related infections fell, the evidence that antisepsis worked became irrefutable and it was widely accepted by surgeons around the world. Lister even received Royal Approval when he used his carbolic spray during a surgical procedure on Queen Victoria.

Listerine was first created in 1879 by a chemist in St. Louis named Joseph Lawrence. Lawrence named his new medicine after Dr. Joseph Lister, as a way of paying homage to him for his work in antiseptics. Listerine was originally designed to be a surgical antiseptic,not a mouthwash. But, it’s sales were nothing to write home about. According to Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s book Freakonomics: “Listerine, for instance, was invented in the nineteenth century as powerful surgical antiseptic. It was later sold, in distilled form, as both a floor cleaner and a cure for gonorrhea. But it wasn’t a runaway success until the 1920s, when it was pitched as a solution for “chronic halitosis” — a then obscure medical term for bad breath. Listerine’s new ads featured forlorn young women and men, eager for marriage but turned off by their mate’s rotten breath.” By 1985 Listerine had been accepted by the American Dental Association, and had already become a household name.

This bottle is one of the original designs from the late 1800’s, and was intended to be used as a surgical antiseptic. Fannie would treat just about any patient that came to her door, and remained up to date on all medical advancements, so this was likely something she used in her practice. This bottle is in great condition, despite a few sections of the original label having come off with use. This is a fascinating look into medical procedures in the 19th Century, and the Listerine company in general, and we are so lucky to have it in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by!

The following music was used for this media project:
Music: Sunny Morning by MusicLFiles
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