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Archaeological Papers

Odyssey In Depth


A conserved Dr. McMunn's Exlir of Opium bottle

An intact Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup bottle being recovered

A conserved Mexican Mustang Liniment bottle

A B.L. Fahnestock's Vermifuge bottle being recovered

A conserved Doctor Marshall's Snuff bottle
Bottles from the Deep highlights the hundreds of bottles recovered from the SS Republic
Bottles from the Deep highlights hundreds of different bottles recovered from the SS Republic shipwreck site

Medical Cures for the 19th-Century Sufferer!

Snake oils, worm pills, invigorators, and elixirs may sound like something from a wizardly fiction novel, but it wasn’t all that long ago that these bottled products were marketed to consumers with claims to cure a host of ailments. During the 19th century, known as the “Golden Age of Quackery”, drug manufacturers often concocted their own formulas and sold them under a variety of creative and unusual names.

Patent Medicine is the generic term given to those various preparations, some of which consisted of nothing more than alcohol, sugar and water, while others frequently contained a lethal combination of ingredients such as opium and alcohol. Before the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act it was common for entrepreneurial-minded merchants and drug companies to bottle potent mixtures promising to cure everything from coughs, to constipation and cancer. What is even more shocking is that the contents of these often dangerous “remedies” did not have to be disclosed to the purchaser, nor did one need a prescription to obtain them.

Over 2,600 patent medicines and other medicinal bottles were recovered from the wreck site of the SS Republic, which sank shortly after the Civil War carrying a cargo intended to help provision the shops, depots and drugstores of the war-torn South.

Below is a sampling of some the unique patent medicines shipped aboard the Republic including their contents and the various ailments they promised to cure:

Product Contents Included Claim

Dr. McMunn's

Elixir of Opium

Morphine (“The Pure and Essential Extract from the Native Drug”) Touted as a cure for a host of ailments, including the relief of “convulsions and spasmodic action,” as well as “pain and irritation, nervous excitement and morbid irritability of body and mind”
Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup Morphine “It Soothes the Child, Softens the Gums, Allays all Pain, Cures Wind and Colic, and is the Best Remedy for Diarrhea”
Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral Opium derivatives Claimed to cure dreaded childhood afflictions such as whooping cough, influenza, consumption, as well as all diseases of the lungs and throat
H.T. Helmbold’s Genuine Fluid Extracts Extract of Buchu, cubebs, licorice, caramel, molasses, peppermint and alcohol “A Specific Remedy” for an implausible laundry list of ailments: General Debility, Mental and Physical Depression, Imbecility, and Confused Ideas. Also on the list: Hysteria, Diseases of the Bladder and Kidneys, Emaciation, Constipation, Epilepsy, and Paralysis.
Mexican Mustang Liniment Crude petroleum, ammonia, water and brandy "For the Outward Ailments of Man or Beast," the concoction claimed to cure over 30 ailments, including rheumatic pains, sprains, strains, burns, bites, scalds, colds, sore throats and lameness.
Stephan Sweet’s Infallible Liniment Snake oil The Great External Remedy for rheumatism, gout, neuralgia, lumbago, stiff neck and joints, sprains, bruises, cut, wounds, piles, headaches and all rheumatic and nervous disorders.” As well as sore throats, sores, ulcers and even frosted feet
B.L. Fahnestock's Vermifuge Myrrh, drachm, oils of wormseed and anise, crotin and turpentine (*see note below) Swallowed by the teaspoonful, this products was intended to heal those suffering from parasites and intestinal worms
Doctor Marshall’s Snuff Tobacco Among the many ailments that relied on snuff’s curative virtues was the common complaint of dry nasal stoppage, popularly termed "pose" in the 16th century.

*These ingredients are for B.A. Fahnestock’ s Vermifuge which were likely the same as those for B.L. Fahnestock’s Vermifuge.


Interested in learning about more quack medicines discovered on the

SS Republic? Head over to Odyssey’s Virtual Museum!

Further Reading:
Ellen C. Gerth, Bottles from the Deep. Patent Medicines, Bitters and other Bottles from the Wreck of the Steamship Republic (Shipwreck Heritage Press, 2006).


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