It’s no secret that Steve and I love antiques. We have no idea how many antiques shops we’ve been in together, and rare is the week when we don’t poke around in at least one. We love the thrill of the hunt, just looking at odd and interesting old things, and incorporating our finds into our lives in meaningful ways.
Like most people, we have a few regrets over missed opportunities (the antiquer’s equivalent to the “one that got away”): the now legendary “Whore Sofa” in Wisconsin, “The Lamp” in Kentucky, the stereoscope on a stand in Tennessee. But these are balanced with the “finds” that have made it home—a rare Currier & Ives print of “the Wonderful Albino Family” we found in Nebraska, a delightful early 20th-century folk carving from East Tennessee, and our most recent purchase, a late 19th-century patent medicine crate which is enjoying a new life holding a portion of Steve’s collection of pre-war hillbilly 78s. We love these objects for the stories they tell, the mysteries they don’t, the adventures we have finding them, and the warm patina that only age can impart.
So, what originally attracted us to an old wooden box, whose original purpose was to protect a dozen bottles of a quack medicine from breaking during shipping? First, it appeals to us visually and meets the aesthetic criteria we’ve established for our home. Second, we are huge fans of both late 19th-century advertising and the “patent medicine” craze that paralleled it, and you just don’t see these kinds of crates every day. Third, it’s useful: we’re always looking for attractive storage solutions. And finally, the price was right.
What we have since learned—because we try to research everything we buy after hauling it home—is that, like all objects, our box has its own story to tell. Even the humblest objects have value as cultural artifacts if we take the time to examine them within the context of their original creation and use.
Asa Griggs Candler (1851—1929) was born into a well-connected, prosperous, slave-holding family in Villa Rica, Georgia, just west of Atlanta. He had originally hoped to become a physician, and spent his childhood concocting pretend potions and doctoring sick animals. The Civil War interrupted his schooling and devastated his family’s finances, ending his dream of higher education. Instead, he was apprenticed as a teenager to learn the pharmacy trade. At 21, his training complete, Candler arrived in the booming city of Atlanta.
It was the golden age of patent medicines, and Atlanta was about to become the patent medicine capital of the South. Rife with post-war illnesses, poverty, malaria, and yellow fever, as well as ringworm (which roughly half of Southern children suffered from), the South offered great marketing potential. Candler quickly saw that the pharmacy field might be more lucrative than being a physician.
The ascent of print advertising in the post-Civil War decades and the lack of government regulation over proprietary medicinal compounds contributed to the dramatic rise in “miraculous” and “curative” tonics, elixirs, ointments, and waters, often advertised to the public with false or misleading claims. Simultaneously, the development of electricity led to “medical” inventions like Dr. Dye’s Celebrated Voltaic Belt with Electric Suspensory Appliances, which promised the speedy relief of impotence. In the 1890s, patent medicines “offered the ad-writer his greatest opportunity,” wrote advertising pioneer Claude Hopkins.
At their best, patent medicines could be harmless or even moderately useful; at their worst, they were downright dangerous. Many of them contained grain alcohol, opium, or cocaine (which did make people feel better—at least temporarily), while others contained toxic chemicals including arsenic, mercury, strychnine, and lead.
Asa Candler began buying the rights to a number of patent medicines, including Bucklen’s Arnica Salve (for all manner of fever sores, tetter, chilblains, “positively cures piles”); King’s New Discovery (for consumption, colds, and coughs); and De-Lec-Ta-Lave (to whiten the teeth, cleanse the mouth, harden and beautify the gums). By 1886, Candler (himself a hypochondriac who was likely dabbling in his own products) was advertising his Electric Bitters, touted to cure depression, poor appetite, headaches, nervousness, and more, at the price of 50 cents per bottle. In 1888, he purchased the rights to the elixir for which he is best remembered, Coca-Cola.
In 1890, Candler bought the once venerable Botanic Blood Balm Co. (B.B.B.), which had been a big seller for its inventor, Dr. J.P. Dromgoole. (Candler probably picked it up at a rock-bottom price, after an 1889 landmark Georgia Supreme Court case significantly reduced the value of the company by finding in favor of a plaintiff who sued after taking 3 bottles “as directed” for a rash on his leg, and ended up with “his head, neck and breast . . . covered with red spots and the inside of his mouth and throat filled with sores [and finally] a large part of the hair fell from his head.”
Botanic Blood Balm, which Candler marketed at the price of $1 for a large bottle, was claimed to make the blood pure and rich and stop all aches and pains. This “scientific wonder” promised positive and permanent relief from “blood poison,” and to quickly cure “old ulcers, scrofula, eczema, itching skin and blood humors, cancer, festering sores, boils, carbuncles, pimples or offensive eruptions, pains in bones or joints, rheumatism, catarrh, or any blood or skin trouble,” as well as “female weakness” and “hereditary taint.” It was also boldly claimed to be a perfect cure for syphilis. There was just about nothing B.B.B. couldn’t cure!
In 1891, Candler sold his entire stock of pharmaceuticals to focus on Coca-Cola, and became one of the South’s wealthiest self-made millionaires. He sold B.B.B. to J.B. Brooks, one of his part-time traveling salesmen. The passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 marked the beginning of the end for the patent medicine industry. B.B.B. again changed hands, and was operating under William R. Warner & Co. of Philadelphia by 1916, when the company was fined $200 for misbranding and making false and fraudulent claims regarding the product’s efficacy; a chemical analysis found it to contain 14.6 % alcohol, along with senna (a purgative), arsenic, and other ingredients.