Friday, December 23, 2011

Material Culture Minute: A Dispensing Pot

Stale cigarette smoke and dust. The odor combination that usually signals a good antiquing venue. Earlier this week while on an antiquing mission in New Jersey, Tyler and I combed the stalls of one such establishment, picking through the 1990s-era Barbies (perfect for the eBay pickers I spotted herding "collectibles" to the counter) and the nineteenth-century ceramics (perfect for us).

On the first floor, near the booth filled with scavenged Civil War finds (a no-no, Tyler says), I spotted a small nineteenth-century dispensing pot, or medicine jar, featuring a printed label that boasted the ointment's ability to cure gout, among other impairments.

I recently completed a research project involving gout (an illness famed dictionary writer Samuel Johnson summed up as “The arthritis; a periodical disease attended with great pain”) and material culture, so you will not be surprised to learn that I immediately fetched a clerk to open the glass case.

I pointed to the little ceramic pot, and the clerk expressed surprise at my taste in "smalls."

"That medicine container?" She asked.

"Yes, please."

While she admired some shinies in the case, I cradled the pot in my hands, running my fingers over the spots, stains, and cracks.

"That looks old," the clerk said.

"A huh," I muttered with a smile.

After a few moments of connoissing, I told her I'd take it. She ferried it off to the counter for safe-keeping while Tyler and I made our way through the apartment building-turned antiquing haven, absentmindedly singing along to the increasingly nauseating Christmas tunes. By the time we reached the Pyrex booth in the former kitchen of apartment no. 3 (they made that many colors of Pyrex?), we were tuckered out.

So what did I bring home?

It's called a dispensing pot, which is an antecedent of the twist-top medicine bottle you have in your own medicine cabinet. This particular pot contained a so-called patent medicine "cure-all" manufactured by Holloway of London. As defined by the trusty Oxford English Dictionary, a patent medicine is "a proprietary medicine manufactured under patent and available without prescription." The label is self-explanatory. It lists ailments ranging from gout to ringworm. This particular pot was sold in New York. Other pots were sold in London and, of course, "by most Vendors of Medicine throughout the civilized World." President Theodore Roosevelt and Congress took a stand against such chicanery with the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, but not before untold numbers of gout and ringworm sufferers tried concoctions like Holloway's.

Thomas Holloway (1800-1883) established his business in 1837, and he sold his medicines through the late nineteenth century. The Science Museum in London holds a few Holloway ointment ceramics in its collection, which you can view online here. The objects at the Science Museum are crisp, clean, and clear, so I suspect that the pot I bought was someone's privy pit find.

And now, it is my find. What shall I put inside?

Further Reading

For a good explanation of the history of patent medicine, check out the "History of Patent Medicine" online exhibit produced by the Hagley Library in Delaware.

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