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This display of medicine bottles and containers was on display as part of the Bulkley Valley Museum's exhibit, "INFLUENZA: The Spanish Flu in Smithers," from 2018-19. 

As part of our 2018-19 exhibit "INFLUENZA: The Spanish Flu in Smithers," the Bulkley Valley Museum displayed 42 artifacts related to turn-of-the-century medicine and health care. Although none of them are specifically related to the Spanish flu, these items still give a sense of the resources Smithers' early settlers may have turned to when ill or injured.

These items and more can be found in the Museum's online collections catalogue.

What were patent medicines?

Many of the items in this collection are patent medicines. Famous (or infamous) for their flashy advertisements and cure-all promises, these concoctions were popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many claimed to be effective against nearly every ailment, both internal and external, from pimples to cancer. There were even remedies specifically targeted at “feminine issues” such as menstrual cramps and 'hysteria.' Patent medicines were available from travelling salesmen, at fairs and carnivals, by mail order, as well as from local merchants.

Unfortunately, many of these “medicines” were actually quite dangerous, containing high concentrations of alcohol, cocaine, morphine, and opium as their main ingredients. There was no oversight as to what went into these remedies, and in what quantity. Accidental poisonings, overdose, and addiction were common.

By the early 1900s, public health laws such as the American Pure Food & Drug Act of 1906 and the Canadian Food & Drug Act of 1920 began requiring that drug and cosmetic manufacturers disclose the ingredients included in their products, and that drugs work effectively as advertised. While some patent medicines managed to meet the new requirements, most began to disappear from the market.

Artifacts from our Collections:


Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound

One of the best known patent medicines, Lydia Pinkham’s “woman’s tonic” was meant to relieve “feminine issues” including menstrual pain and symptoms associated with menopause. The original formula contained the anti-inflammatories pleurisy root, life root, and fenugreek, as well as unicorn Root, black cohosh, and a healthy dose of drinking alcohol.

While its effectiveness continues to be debated, the Pinkham brand and its advertising left its mark on women’s health for its forthright discussion of “hush-hush” subject matter such as menstruation and menopause. The Pinkham compound continues to be manufactured in a modified form to this day.


Vapo-Cresolene Lamp Vaporizer

This interesting appliance, first manufactured in the 1870s, was intended to relieve respiratory ailments such as sore throat, whooping cough, and pneumonia. The user would light the kerosene-burning lamp and fill the removable tray above it with cresoline (liquid coal tar). Warmed by the flame, the cresolene vaporized and dispersed into the air. This process was intended to be done indoors, with windows shut tight, so that the user could inhale the cresolene and be cured. 

While coal tar does have some anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory, and anti-itch properties, it is also a carcinogen - a substance that causes cancer. This fact was known as early as 1908, when the American Medical Association warned of the dangers of inhaling cresolene. Despite this fact, Vapo-Cresolene lamps continued to be made and sold into the 1950s. 


Fellows' Compound Syrup of Hypophosphates

Invented by James Fellows, a St. John, New Brunswick drug merchant in the late 1800s, this remedy was widely sold to doctors to dispense to patients, as well as directly over-the-counter in pharmacies. Fellows’ Compound is referenced in medical books of the period as “an excellent recuperative tonic” that could be used as a treatment for “...anemia, neurasthenia, bronchitis, influenza, pulmonary tuberculosis and wasting diseases of childhood, and during convalescence from exhausting diseases.

Shockingly, this popular patent medicine contains strychnine, a highly toxic substance commonly found in rat poison and other pesticides! Poisoning by inhalation, swallowing, or absorption through eyes or mouth can be fatal. Despite its potential toxicity, Fellows’ Compound was manufactured and sold into the early 1900s.


This $10 home electrotherapy machine came with a battery, two tube hand electrodes, and a metal foot plate. 

No. 44 D.D. Home Medical Apparatus

Electrotherapy machines, like this one manufactured by J.H. Bunnell & Co. of New York, first entered the consumer market in the late 1800s. They capitalized on public excitement about electricity and its adoption into everyday life. Electric products were everywhere: electric combs and hairbrushes to cure baldness and nervous headaches, an “electric flesh brush” for a variety of ailments, and electric insoles as a treatment for cold feet, gout, pains and aches. There were even electric garters and corsets for women that would supposedly subdue cramps and ward off disease.

While these machines are now often associated with turn of the century medical “quackery," they were widely used and prescribed by doctors of the era, legitimized by organizations such as the American Electrotherapeutic Association. Today, historians see them as representatives of the often blurred boundaries between medicine and consumerism during this period.


Rundle's Non-Such Liniment

Manufactured by the Geo. H. Rundle & Son Company of Windsor, Ontario, this formula appears to have been a true “cure-all”. It could be used for both internal and external ailments, including first aid treatment of cuts and abrasions, as well as for cold congestion, sprains and bruises, neuralgia, athletes foot, tooth-aches, sore throats, and indigestion. It was also toted as an effective medication for livestock and poultry under the pretence that “Doctors have proved that many drugs which are most effective for human ailments are also the best for animals”.



Rawleigh's products

The W. T. Rawleigh Company of Freeport, Illinois was founded in 1889 by William Thomas Rawleigh. Rawleigh’s first products included an antiseptic salve, a liniment “For the internal and external use for man or beast!”, a medicated ointment, and a product named External AP (anti-pain) Oil.

Rawleigh’s business was founded on door-to-door sales, and as his company became more successful he had a whole fleet of door-to-door salesmen selling various products. By 1914 the company was recognized as one of the greatest manufacturers and distributors of over 100 household items. By the start of the First World War there were close to 1000 Rawleigh dealers, and factories including in two branches in Canada, based in Winnipeg and Toronto.

The Bulkley Valley Museum's collection includes a Rawleigh bottle, a tin of medicated ointment, and an antiseptic healing salve.


Dr. Fahrney & Sons Co.

While we don’t know the exact remedy that was in this bottle, Fahrney & Sons products were marketed as providing relief from nervousness, indigestion, upset stomach, headaches, loss of sleep or appetite, flatulence, foul breath, and coated tongue.

These remedies were known to contain significant amounts of alcohol. For example, Fahrney & Sons' “Lozogo” brand was 14% alcohol.


Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription

Dr. Pierce’s Favourite Prescription was created by Ray Vaughn Pierce, a doctor and U.S. Representative. Pierce manufactured and sold several patent medicines including his “Favourite” remedy, as well as “Smart Weed” and “Pleasant Pellets”.

Many of Pierce's cures were aimed at addressing "female illnesses”, and are thought to have contained both alcohol and opium. However, this particular product clams to contain no alcohol. Instead, it includes medicinal herbs such as black haw, blue and black cohosh roots, oregon grape root, and valerian root.


Fletcher's Castoria

First patented in 1868 by Dr. Samuel Pitcher, Castoria was a laxative composed of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), senna (a flowering plant), essence of wintergreen (an aromatic plant), taraxacum (dandelions), sugar, and water.

In 1871 the Centaur Company formed by Charles Henry Fletcher purchased the rights to the patented formula and began manufacturing it as Fletcher’s Castoria. It is still produced today as “Fletcher’s Laxative for Kids”, but is not commonly seen on pharmacy shelves.


Emerson Drug Company Bromoseltzer

Bromoseltzer was an antacid used to relieve pain from heartburn, upset stomach, or acid indigestion. It was first invented by Isaac E. Emerson's drug company of Baltimore, Maryland in 1888. 

The primary ingredients in this remedy are acetanilide and sodium bromide. Acetanilide is now known to be a toxin that in high doses can cause cyanosis (bluish or purplish discolouration of the skin), as well as liver and kidney damage. Bromides are a class of tranquilizers that were removed from US markets in 1975 due to their toxicity.


Moone's Emerald Oil

Moone’s Emerald Oil was marketed as a “magical” antiseptic oil that would rid users of “unsightly spots and skin diseases” including pimples and eczema. The shiny green bottles it was sold in seem to have added to its mystical appeal! 

This product was mostly made of camphor oil, derived from the wood of the camphor tree. The manufacturer's label warned that pure Emerald Oil might be harmful to sensitive skin, and recommended that it be diluted with "two to four parts of good Olive Oil" in such cases. 


Dr. Thomas' "Eclectric" Oil

Eclectric Oil was invented by Dr. S.N. Thomas of New York in the mid-1840s. It was sold in Canada by Northrop & Lyman of Newcastle, Ontario. Eclectric Oil was an all-purpose internal and external family remedy intended for use by people and animals. It contained spirits of turpentine, camphor, oil of tar, red thyme and fish oil. Its manufacturers claimed it was able to cure everything from toothaches to “lameness” and deafness.

The word “eclectric” is thought to have been used to invoke a connection to electricity. In the late 1800s and early 1900s there was a great belief in the curative powers of electricity, and many patent medicine makers used the words “magnetic” or “electric” to name their products.



The Pinex Company of Fort Wayne Indiana was started by William H. Noll in 1905. Manufactured after 1910 as a remedy for coughs, bronchitis and related ailments, Pinex contained both chloroform and alcohol. As this box indicates, Pinex was not meant to be taken in its pure concentrated state, and users were directed by instructions on the box as to how to dilute it into a suitable syrup for ingestion.

According to Drugs.com, Pinex is still sold today in Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands. 


Dodd's Kidney Pills

Dodd’s Kidney Pills would have been similar to Carter’s Kidney Pills, a patent medicine developed by Samuel J. Carter of Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1868. Kidney pills were claimed to cure headache, constipation, dyspepsia, biliousness, and even diabetes! 

As was common for patent medicines in this era, Dodd's advertising often bordered on the melodramatic. For example, the April 1897 edition of the Shelburne Economist (from Shelburne, Ontario) exclaimed, “Why Die a Lingering Death of Direful Diabetes? Dodd’s Kidney Pills Cure It!”


Burdock Blood Bitters

Burdock Blood Bitters, a supposed blood purifier, was intended to treat a variety of ailments, including headaches, indigestion, conspitation, and “sour stomach”. The remedy was known to contain between 16.33% to 25.2% alcohol (by volume).

Burdock oil, another ingredient in this concoction, is derived from the root of the arctium or burdock plant and has been used in both Chinese and European folk medicine. The spiky burrs of the plant - which you may have seen clinging to your hiking boots or a dog's fur after a walk - inspired the invention of velcro by Swiss engineer George de Mestral in the 1950s.


Puretest Psyllium Seed

This "remarkable laxative" was sold only at Rexall Drug Stores, according to its packaging. It was produced by the United Drug Company Ltd. in Toronto.

Psyllium seeds are use to relieve symptoms of constipation and diarrhea, and also serve as an ingredient in many breakfast cereals. They come from the Psyllium plant, which is mainly cultivated in northern India. 


Elasto Tablets and Nature Salve

Elasto Nature Salve provided pain relief for external injuries and ailments such as "ulcers, wounds, inflamed patches, sore joints, rheumatism, varicose veins, chilblains, sore and tender feet, skin diseases, piles, boils, bruises, sprains, burns, chapped lips and hands, [and] sore breasts." 

It could be used in conjunction with Elasto Tablets, which "embodie[d] the same natural laws of health and healing" as the salve. 

These packages were made in London, England, by The New Era Treatment Co., Ltd. 


Milburn's Laxa-Liver Pills

These pills were taken for the stomach, liver, and bowels. They contained tiny amounts of the poisons hyoscyamus (henbane), belladonna (deadly nightshade), and strychnine. 

They were made by the T. Milburn Co. Ltd. of Toronto. 


BFI Antiseptic Powder

This antiseptic poweder was used to disinfect skin during first aid and surgeries. 'BFI' is an acronym for the main ingredient, bismuth-formic-iodide. 


Chamberlain's Tablets

Like many other remedies in our collection, these bright pink pills were used to treat constipation. Sold for 35 cents, they were distributed by Standard Laboratories Ltd. of Toronto. 

This package of tablets came with a helpful pamphlet explaining how to use the pills to combat constipation and "biliousness." The 18th- and 19th-century term "bilious" relates to poor digestion, stomach pains, and flatulence. It was believed that these sympoms were caused by the quantity or quality of bile in the body.  


Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills

Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills were among the most successful patent medicines on the market. A typical cure-all, they were advertised as effective against countless ailments including kidney disease, jaundice, dysentry, malarial fever, "female complaints," and "impurity of the blood." This package is branded as a "modern vegetable laxative." 

In fact, the very name of this product was misleading. There was no "Dr. Morse"; the pills had been developed by Andrew B. Moore and came under the ownership of the Comstock family from 1867 to 1959. Moreover, their ingredients include plants such as aloe, mandrake, gamboge, jalap, and cayenne pepper - but no 'Indian root!'


Minard's Liniment

This home therapeutic was created by Dr. Levi Minard, from Hants County, Nova Scotia, in the 1860s. Its use was widespread throughout the Maritime Provinces before pushing west into Quebec and Ontario, where it became known as the "King of Pain Relief."

Minard’s was claimed to be useful against a broad range of ailments including (but not limited to): sore throat, sciatica, bronchitis, toothache, earache, headache, burns, boils, flesh wounds, insect bites, sore nipples, bruises, and lumbago. It could also be used to treat livestock.

Its ingredients included camphor, ammonia water, and turpentine (distilled from pine oil).


Johnson's Belladonna Plasters

This versatile item could be applied to any part of the body to relieve pain. It could be attached whole (ex. upon the chest) or cut into pieces (ex. in strips wrapped around the wrists or knees). The accompanying pamphlet described its touch as "quite like grasping the aching part with the hand and pressing it gently," or like "a mild and continuous massage." The drawings on the second page give ideas of where on the body to place it. 

The plasters are made from the Atropa belladonna plant, also known as deadly nightshade. After being gathered, these poisonous plants were carefully prepared, cured, and preserved. The extract derived from them was then combined with gums, wax, burgundy pitch and India rubber to make a plaster.



"It tastes awful - and it works!" This infamous cough syrup was first invented in Toronto by Canadian pharmacist William Knapp Buckley. After taking over a local drug store, he identified several ingredients which were particularly effective against colds. The resulting mixture made its first appearance in 1919 - the year after the worst wave of the Spanish influenza - and remains a household name even now. It enjoyed widespread popularity throughout Canada in the 1920s, weathered the Great Depression, and reached international markets in the late 1930s. Its well-known slogan, however, did not appear until the mid-1980s. 

The ingredients of Buckley's include camphor, menthol, pine needle oil, Canada basalm (a turpentine made from the resin of the basalm fir), and tincture of capsicum (more commonly known as peppers!). 


Suturing Needles

Suturing needles like these are used to sew up body tissues after an injury or surgery. They have been in use for thousands of years, with the earliest-known suture being found in an Egyptian mummy from 1100 BCE. Different materials have been used over the millennia, including bone, silver, copper, and bronze for the needles, and flax, hemp, silk, hair, and catgut (animal intestine) for the threads. Synthetic thread first came into use in the 1930s, and is commonly-used today. 

These metal needles came in packs of 12 and were made in England. 


Head Mirror

Head mirrors like this one have long been a familiar sight in doctors' offices, but are now falling out of use. Despite commonly being depicted straight upright on the head, the mirror was actually worn down over one eye as shown in the picture. This causes light to reflect off the concave surface of the mirror and back towards the patient's face, reducing shadows and helping the doctor see better. They are mainly used to examine the ear, nose, and throat. 

The head mirror has its origins in the 18th century, but the version we know today was invented in the mid-19th. Fiber-optic headlights are eliminating the need for the head mirror in the modern world. 


Medical Tools

A knee-hammer, tweezers, and forceps - a familiar sight in doctors' offices of both the early 20th century and today. 

Our Collection