Present among the beauty products excavated from the SS Republic wreck site are a host of hair potions including 44 bottles bearing the embossed name "Burnett's Cocoaine." The invention of Massachusetts' Joseph Burnett, the formula may have been intended to exploit the public's fixation with the many cocaine-laced patent medicines flooding the market. Unlike most of his competitors, having graduated from the Worcester College of Pharmacy, Burnett stands out as one of the few fully qualified proprietors certified as a pharmacist.
The original product, made from "scientifically selected ingredients" including coconut oil and 50 percent alcohol, was touted the ideal compound to stimulate healthy and vigorous hair growth. Labeled "A Perfect Hair Dressing," Burnett's maker promised his hair treatment would restore lost hair and prevent it from falling out. At just 50 cents a bottle in 1859, it was also promoted as the "best and cheapest hair dressing in the world."
Burnett launched his career working for Theodore Metcalf, a Boston dealer of drugs and toilet articles. In 1847, the young pharmacist opened his own apothecary in Boston. Ten years later, Burnett partnered with William G. Edmunds, and the business became Joseph Burnett & Co. The firm boasted a number of other products including Jonas Whitcomb's Asthma Remedy, a cologne water, assorted flavoring extracts and a freckle remover, but it's most lucrative preparation remained Burnett's Cocoaine.