The seller of this week's item says the container is rare, but the contents were anything but. Long since depleted, it once held a patent medicine that was more than likely alcohol with a fancy name.
Bill Steele, who has been collecting bottles for 36 years, says this particular one is only the third such container he has come across with a square bottom. It advertises itself as "Bliss' Botanic Cough Syrup," with "New London CT" imprinted directly below that.
"It dates to the 1890s in the heyday of the patent medicine era, when anyone could create a concoction and make all kinds of claims about the curative powers of it without having to back them up or list what was in it, which was usually mostly alcohol," says Steele.
It's a pretty fair summary. According to the Hagley Museum and Library, these "medicines" were unregulated and typically consisted of vegetable extracts with a lot of alcohol - and perhaps morphine or cocaine - added in for good measure. No doubt they made you stop caring about whatever ailed you for awhile, but they weren't exactly safe.
The Journal of the American Medical Association wrote in 1904 that patent medicines were a $60 million business. They were also none too pleased at what they knew to be a fraudulent enterprise. One "cure," they noted, was advertised as a way to fight alcoholism despite having an alcohol content of 40 percent. "I am told that one patent medicine firm uses 500 barrels of whisky per week in making its product," the journal said.
Temperance movements in the late 19th century were just as critical as physicians' groups thanks to these statistics. With concerns over patent medicines increasing in the 1900s, President Theodore Roosevelt advocated stricter regulations. The result was the Pure Food and Drug Act passed by Congress in 1906. Under this legislation, the Food and Drug Administration was established to analyze potential hazards and order producers to report any adverse effects of their products.
When it comes to this particular concoction, it seems Bliss' Botanic Cough Syrup was the brainchild of one John C. Bliss. He was a barber whose business was located at 111 Bank Street (where the is now), although he later moved farther down the street to 357 Bank (now ). Bliss patented the cough syrup around the late 1870s, and one testimonial came from none other than the pastor at the , who declared that the syrup "allayed the inflamation, cured my hoarseness and placed my voice in condition for the public services of the week." The advertisements for the syrup are plentiful in , and one in 1881 has the druggist Nichols & Harris at 55 State Street listed as the sole distributor. At one point, Bliss sponsored a major rowing competition in Shaw's Cove to help promote his product.
Steele says he isn't sure who may have made the bottle, since the New London Glass Works was no longer operating when Bliss started selling his product. The bottle is five and three-quarter inches tall, and in good condition aside from some slight haziness. It ships from Monson, Mass. and the opening price is $9.99. The auction ends at about 5:20 p.m. on Wednesday.