You start with a bottle.
It’s a small thing, clear and rectangular with a fairly long neck. All the sides but the front are indented, a bit like false windows on a building. The front has a worn label, reading “Brown’s Syrup Tolu, Tar and Wild Cherry” in large print, followed by claims of being a reliable remedy, directions on how to take the now gone concoction, and at the very bottom of the label it reads “Prepared by L.D. Brown, Pioneer Drug Store, First (blank), Little Falls, Minn.” A tear stole the word following ‘First’.
So you have this bottle. If you want to know where and when it came from you can start in a few different ways.
First is the shape. Small, rectangular bottles like this were often medicinal. Most bottles made for a specific purpose tend to look a certain way, and can be incredibly diagnostic-which means they can tell us a lot. Champagne bottles, for example, have barely changed in shape in well over two centuries. There are hundreds of studies and references for common bottle shapes, marks and manner of creation. A very useful one is the Society for Historical Archaeology’s Historic Bottle page. From it I got that-
“This conformation of bottle is fairly strongly identified with a wide array of medicinal products as well as castor oil (a medicinal product), flavoring extracts (though those often had a ring molded on the neck), and any liquid product that was sold in relatively small quantities; the pictured bottle only holds a couple ounces.” (Society for Historical Archaeology)
An especially useful tool in dating a bottle is to look for something called “mold seams” where extra glass from the bottle mold spilled out a bit, leaving lines in the glass. This means you can often tell what type of mold, if any, was used to make the bottle. Some mold styles were only used during a certain time period.
A second way is to simply look at the label itself. Something interesting about this history of medicine and remedies is the patent medicine industry. Patent medicines, so called due to their proprietary nature, were sold without prescription. They often made ridiculous claims to their curative power, with a single medicine able to cure everything from a stomachache to rheumatism and more.
The problem was the ingredients. As noted earlier, there are no ingredients listed on the label, apart from the “title”. Patent medicines often contained everything from morphine, cocaine, alcohol, and opium–usually more than one at the same time. The phrase “snake oil salesman” actually came from a patent medicine, “Stanley’s Snake Oil”, which contained no snakes but did have turpentine and camphor.
The patent medicine industry started to die in 1906 with the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, which forced people to label dangerous ingredients. They were banned entirely in 1936. Listing ingredients was also required of pharmacies. Since ingredients are not listed on the bottle, that means that just using the label, we can date it to the late 1880s, early 1900s.
A third way is to follow a different path in researching the label–just look up L.D. Brown in the Morrison County Historical Society archives. How much the archives can tell us varies from individual to individual, and in this case, it tells us from L.D. Brown’s obituary that he studied at night at the Minneapolis Institute of Pharmacy, and passed his board exam in 1889. He came to Little Falls in 1892 and purchased Wetzel’s Pioneer Drug store business. His store moved a few times, but was at 1st street until 1902. L.D. Brown sold his business in 1920. At some point the man becomes a State Representative in the Senate. L.D. Brown passed away September 19th, 1941, survived by his wife and four children.
So in total, the bottle is a medicine from a local store from the late 1800s-early 1900s, owned by a man who would become a State Representative.
It’s amazing what we can learn starting from just one little bottle.
~ Katherine “Rin” Gaubatz, MCHS Intern
Katherine “Rin” Gaubatz served as an intern for the Morrison County Historical Society from February through April 2017. She is earning her Master of Science degree in Cultural Resource Management from St. Cloud State University and is specializing in Historic Archaeology. Her sub-specialty is bottles, with her thesis topic being the alcohol bottles at Fort Snelling. Rin provided a description and this history on a bottle from the MCHS collection.
This article originally appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Vol. 30, No. 2, 2017.