Wilder’s Mother’s Worm Syrup

I was working through some of the artifacts from Dooley’s Ferry this morning, and came across four fragments from a large panel bottle. We get a lot of these from historic sites, many of which were once vessels for a forest of patent medicines offered for sale in country stores around the South. Notorious for being high in alcohol content, patent medicines contained numerous other ingredients that aren’t legally available today. Some contained morphine, others opium, and a few even had cocaine in them. A lot of these were pitched to parents as a surefire way to soothe teething pains for children.

Not surprisingly, one of the major catalysts for the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was the number of children killed by taking these medicines. One of the requirements of the PFDA was the labeling of products that contained addictive ingredients. This killed off the patent medicine industry, as most available tonics, syrups, etc., contained some kind of addictive substance.

During our October and November digs at Dooley’s Ferry, Arkansas Archeological Survey staff and volunteers excavated Feature 1 (the only feature found at Dooley’s Ferry to date). Amongst the fill from this deflated cellar were four fragments of a patent medicine bottle. Unlike most of the others recovered during the digs, this one bore enough of its detail to identify the manufacturer.

Locus 9 Medicine BottleVoila

The bottle could be read as one of Edward Wilder & Co., Druggist, of Louisville, Kentucky. Fike (1987) records this bottle as being a bottle that once held “Mother’s Worm Syrup.”

I know. Ewwwww.

From the New Orleans Commercial Bulletin, August 22, 1870

From the New Orleans Commercial Bulletin, August 22, 1870

However, worms were a constant nuisance in the 19th century. Roundworms, pinworms, tapeworms, you name it. When it came to intestinal worms, someone (many people) had a significant problem with them. And when I say “significant problem,” I mean worms could do a real number on you. So, it should come as no surprise that worm “cures” were popular products. I’ve found “vermifuge” bottles on a number of different historic sites in the South, so this was definitely not an isolated phenomenon.

Wilder advertised his product as better than typical vermifuges, as it lacked the nauseating effects, which could be particularly upsetting to children. He also favorably compared it to worm pills that were also available at the time. Worm syrup was billed as being more easier to dose children with, and highly effective. Provided the consumption of the contents was not a pretext for drinking a little alcohol, finding this bottle points to both the presence of children at the site (Locus 9), and the attempt by a parent (mother, if we accept 19th century gender norms) to alleviate the suffering of her child or children.

So, this was a neat find, but it gets better. I went trolling around the internet, looking for an example of a complete bottle, and found this image at Peachridge Glass, an antique bottle collecting website. Not only is it a really nice image of a complete bottle, but notice the little windows going up the side of the bottle. When working through the material excavated at Locus 7 during the 2010 University of Arkansas Field School, we found a number of small fragments of glass with these windows on them. We assumed they were some form of a log cabin-shaped bottle (sometimes used for syrup) or an inkwell. Thanks to finding the later segments of the bottle, we now know better what we are looking at. Are they part of the same bottle? That seems unlikely, as they are part of two different debris clusters, which do not really grade into one another. More likely, they are part of a cure preferred by someone or some family at Dooley’s Ferry around the time of the Civil War.

Oh yeah, the Civil War aspect…

See, according to Fike, Wilder was only making these bottles between 1859 and 1876. While Clark (1964) states that Louisville became a major producer of goods during the postbellum period, thanks to the railroads, I don’t think that’s what brought our bottle(s) out to Dooley’s Ferry. The railroad came through Hope in 1875, only about a year before these bottles went out of production. Unless we are looking at the first bottle off the train, we are likely seeing bottles that were brought in up the Red River from New Orleans (we know New Orleans had them in 1870, see the above newspaper ad).

This is a nice piece of wartime/Reconstruction Era artifact, but could be more. Burnett (2012), in an entry for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas Online, notes that folk cures for worms were widely known and endured in-state until the 1970s and on. Whoever bought this/these bottle(s) had the money to purchase medicine instead of opting for one of these folk remedies, which were based on local plant life and literally “there for the picking.” It also suggests that the consumer was someone who placed their faith in “scientific” approach of the “ablest and most learned medical men” (to quote Wilder’s ad) of the period.

This and other nuggets keep cropping up as I continue to write the dissertation. It’s fascinating to watch the way the data help to animate the site by telling us the occupation chronology for various former buildings, and by providing small glimpses into the lives of the people who once lived there.

REFERENCES

Burnett, Abby
2012    Worms [Medical Condition]. Encyclopedia of Arkansas Online. Electronic document [http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=7337], accessed 9 February 2013.

Clark, Thomas D.
1964   Pills, Petticoats, and Plows: The Southern Country Store. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Fike, Richard E.
1987   The Bottle Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Historic, Embossed Medicine Bottles. Caldwell, NJ: Blackburn Press.

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