The Patent Medicine Era in America

Hechtlinger, Adelaide
1974 The Great Patent Medicine Era: Or, Without Benefit of Doctor. New York: Galahad Books. Pg. 218.
University of Washington Libraries.

My final project for historical archaeology explored the complex history of the patent medicine era in America. Prompted by an interest in embossed medicine bottles studied in this class and my museum curation course at the Burke Museum, this subject was far more extensive than I ever imagined. In my paper, I focused on the social and industrial components that created a climate of self-diagnosis and self-medication, which reached its zenith during the Victorian period.

I argued that one of the most important and pivotal of these topics was the boom in advertising during the 19th century. For me, the most fascinating advertising strategies of the patent medicine industry were directed at women. In my opinion, it was nearly unprecedented at the time to

Hechtlinger, Adelaide
1974 The Great Patent Medicine Era: Or, Without Benefit of Doctor. New York: Galahad Books. Pg. 73. University of Washington Libraries

find such direct consumerism targeted at a demographic that were socially and politically oppressed like Victorian women. Doctoring manuals for women doubled as both advertisements and how-to guides to take care of one’s family.  These publications put women in the position of “the family doctor,” but at the same time would reiterate the weakness and frailty of “the female patients” (Apple 1990:322). In addition, advertisements would intertwine the ideas of female morality and health. Precautions regarding the “evils of insufficient clothing” imparted how women’s fashion, by exposing parts of the body, could lead to disease and death by consumption (Hechtlinger 1970:95).


I found the duality of the advertising tactics towards women as confusing, frustrating, and captivating all at the same time. My modern feminist perspective makes it difficult to glean many positive aspects from some condescending advertisements.

Hechtlinger, Adelaide
1974 The Great Patent Medicine Era: Or, Without Benefit of Doctor. New York: Galahad Books. Pg. 70. University of Washington Libraries.

However, with oppressive social directives separating Victorian women from medical professionals, it could be said that the patent medicine industry was giving women some power over their own bodies. That was definitely not an angle I expected to discover while researching patent medicines and snake oils. It was an extremely interesting topic and one I would continue to research further.

References Cited:

Apple, Rima D. 1990 Women, Health, and Medicine in America : A Historical Handbook. Garland Reference Library of Social Science ; v. 483. New York: Garland Pub.

Hechtlinger, Adelaide 1974 The Great Patent Medicine Era: Or, Without Benefit of Doctor. New York: Galahad Books.

Preserving the Past Together

As a student, it’s enlightening to hear about the challenges faced by those in the field of archaeology. Whereas in an academic setting we focus on theories or frameworks to guide us, other real world issues in archaeology arise such as financing, bureaucracy, and limitations on time. Utilizing a focused framework to apply to an archaeological project is an essential tool, and can help to guide the design of the project. Yet this alone cannot lead a project when the history of a community is being explored. Above all, it is important to remember that at the forefront of archaeology today should be respect and collaboration. This theme was a key component of the Preserving the Past workshop and the reception of this idea shows the positive changes happening in archaeology. Panelists and attendees whom addressed these issues were frank and forthcoming about the challenges they’ve faced, and it provides a broader perspective to archaeology in practice. Like other students, I found the breakout sessions informative as well. One attendee spoke about the positive changes she had witnessed in archaeology during her education, and that progress is deeply encouraging.


What can glass tell us?

Swift’s Pharmacy bottle – courtesy the Burke Museum

One of the things I love about archaeology is how a single artifact can open a window into time. This unassuming, small Blake style medicine bottle with a prescription lip belongs to the Burke Museum and is approximately 100 years old. There is still residue of some kind within, but it is difficult to tell what kind of medicine it may have once contained. However, with a little bit of research into historical records, it is possible to find some information.

The narrow mouth and neck means that it was likely not for tablet medication, and instead once held a liquid. Though difficult to see in the photograph, this bottle’s inscription provided a wealth of knowledge and allowed for the possibility of a more precise date. The embossed face of the bottle reads: “Swift’s Pharmacy 2nd Ave. & Pike St. Seattle Wash.” Swift’s Pharmacy was not as widespread as Seattle’s famous Bartell’s throughout the city, but it did have multiple locations through at least the 1940’s.

Seattle Star April 1907 –  courtesy University of Washington libraries

This advertisement from the Seattle Star in April 1907 indicates the recent move to the corner of 2nd and Pike, allowing us to infer that the bottle was not manufactured before Swift’s Pharmacy completed this relocation. Furthermore, the markings on the bottom of the bottle W.T Co. C U.S.A. means that the bottle was manufactured by the Whitall Tatum & Co. of New Jersey. The particular mark was in use until 1924. In addition, George Bartell eventually bought this location from Swift’s Pharmacy owner Louis Swift. A photo from the MoHAI’s digital collection dated 1926 shows Swift’s Pharmacy gone from the northwest corner of 2nd and Pike, and a Bartell Drugs in its place.

So what can this bottle tell us? It can show that sometime between 1907 and 1924, a customer may have walked into Swift’s Pharmacy in the Eitel building on the northwest corner of Pike Street and 2nd Avenue in Seattle. Perhaps the pharmacist who prepared the medication was Ed W. Smith, who was Swift’s head prescription clerk in 1911. Whatever the scenario may have been, it provides an example as to how a single artifact can produce an image of time, place, and behavior.


Studying the Past through Stones

Cemeteries are a fascinating way to view the changes in a city, cultures, and belief systems. As the focus of our class project, Calvary Cemetery in Seattle is not only a peaceful and beautifully kept place, but also a wealth of information from an academic perspective. While it certainly doesn’t reflect the entire story of Seattle from the late 19th century to the present, recording information from nearly 200 graves out of thousands still presented patterns in the cemetery’s history.

Focusing on the number of burials per year within our records, this information could represent a number of events in Seattle’s history. The numbers of burials rose after the Great War and in the early 1920’s, spiking from 1925-1930 and again in 1945-1950. While the rise in deaths could be associated with the WWI or II, the Stock Market crash of 1929, or the subsequent Great Depression, it also could reflect the rising population of Seattle in these periods. The layout and numbers of burials in the cemetery could also reflect this rising population, and the tapering off of burials in the latter half of the 20th century more as a question of limited space. I did find it interesting that large portions of the cemetery did not adhere to east-facing gravestones, which can be found in some Christian burials.

On the other hand, the data collection could also be more suggestive of stylistic elements of the gravestones chosen for recording. Inscriptions, unusual design features, age, or intricate carvings on markers could have all influenced the recorders’ choices. Like many aspects of cemeteries, sometimes burials and our continued interest in them is more telling of the living than it is of the dead.

The Washington Hall – A welcoming space for immigrants to Seattle

Courtesy of Wikipedia

The Washington Hall was built in 1908, and designed by Victor W. Voorhees. Commissioned by the Danish Brotherhood of Seattle, it was the architect’s first large project in a career that would eventually span 25 years and over a hundred buildings in the city. The Hall was created to serve as a lodge for the Brotherhood, as well as a dance hall and performance space. In addition, the back of the Hall was a lodging house intended for new immigrants to the city. The Mission style building boasted comforts of a bygone era: the plans include a billiards room, smoking rooms, a parlor, library, and a ladies dressing rooms. It also uses an interesting architectural feature to illuminate called a light well, which was an open shaft flanked by windows in the center of the lodging area.

Courtesy of Special Collections UW

For more than a century, the Washington Hall hosted a variety of people and events. The Danish Brotherhood sponsored plays, dances, and lectures for the community. A particularly compelling speaker was a member of the Danish Resistance during WWII whom shared his experiences in 1946. Multiple fraternal orders, ladies societies, ethnic groups and religious organizations held functions at the Washington Hall from its earliest days. Italians, African American veterans, Serbians, and Druids are just a few examples of the diverse crowds that enjoyed the Hall. Musical greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Fats Domino, and Duke Ellington also performed on the Washington Hall’s stage.

The Washington Hall was sold in the 1970’s and was leased to various organizations. Most notably the religious cult Children of God occupied the building for a couple years, using it as their base in Seattle. Since 2008, the Washington Hall was taken over by Historic Seattle, extensively renovated, and now is on the National Register of Historic Places.


Garbology: Leaps in Data Interpretation

Trying to construct the life of my assigned subject in the Garbology project has been an opportunity to see how easy it is to make leaps with data interpretations and cultural knowledge. My subject’s coffee consumption appeared to mirror my own – does that indicate they also require coffee to function on a daily basis? Or, also like myself, perhaps they cannot justify the expense or time required to stop at Starbucks every weekday? I can easily voice the assumption that the absence of any evidence of meat may indicate vegetarianism. It’s also just as possible that availability, expense, or eating meals out of the home could have influenced the contents of my subject’s garbage. A more solid statement regarding the absence of meat products would be supported by the presence of other alternative proteins, which would then perhaps strongly indicate a vegetarian diet.

Though Garbology is a study of the recent past, it provides a good lesson to those who study archaeology of any era: the absence of one sort of item in an extremely limited data set does not always indicate a particular pattern. The presence of coffee may very well indicate a sleepless student, and the absence of meat may point to a vegetarian. But to make the leap and say emphatically “This is the way of life of the subject” is jumping to conclusions without enough supporting evidence. A researcher should critically analyze the data available, question it from multiple angles, and acknowledge when one interpretation is not the only possibility.

About Me – Courtney

Hello, my name is Courtney and I’m a junior undergrad. This is my first year at the University of Washington, having previously received my Associates in anthropology from Olympic College. I am majoring in archaeology and minoring in history. I worked for many years in jobs I didn’t really enjoy before making the decision to pursue an education in disciplines that actually excited and challenged me. My particular areas of academic interest are the Roman occupation of Britain, Neolithic settlements of Scotland, and the study of European medieval society. Love of museums and artifact preservation has me leaning towards graduate work in museology.

My hobbies include traveling and experiencing new places, binge watching over-the-top costume dramas (despite their blatant historical inaccuracies), and trying to keep my book hoarding under control. Currently, I am on a mission to find the perfect, most unique Eggs Benedict in Seattle so as to justify my brunch obsession with a goal-oriented purpose.

The Earl's Palace - Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland.

Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, Scotland.