Ayer's Cathartic Pills, 1853-1900

Summary

Nineteenth-century entrepreneurs promised cures with patent medicines. Some of these concoctions, however, contained harmful ingredients or ingredients used in unsafe quantities -- the industry was unregulated and manufacturers were secretive about their recipes. Beginning with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, national legislation increasingly prohibited misleading health claims and required manufacturers to list their product's contents.

Nineteenth-century entrepreneurs promised cures with patent medicines. Some of these concoctions, however, contained harmful ingredients or ingredients used in unsafe quantities -- the industry was unregulated and manufacturers were secretive about their recipes. Beginning with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, national legislation increasingly prohibited misleading health claims and required manufacturers to list their product's contents.

Artifact

Patent medicine

Date Made

1853-1900

Location

Not on exhibit to the public.

Object ID

00.4.6101.2

Material

Wood (Plant material)
Paper (Fiber product)

Specifications

Overview: In 2009, The Henry Ford conservation department teamed with Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Detroit Mercy to analyze a selection of patent medicines in The Henry Ford's collections. The purpose of this analysis was to identify the exact composition of the medicines. Armed with this information, conservators at The Henry Ford will be able to determine appropriate storage methods of the medicines and, in some instances, proper disposal methods for any hazardous materials.

Abstract: A series of patent medicines and nostrums, permanently housed in The Henry Ford in Dearborn, MI, have been analyzed by energy dispersive Xray fluorescence (EDXRF) spectroscopy and multi-nuclear NMR. Such materials were created over a century ago in relative secrecy, and thus the ingredients and recipes have never been made public. The initial findings for metals and organics in these items are presented.

Product Label: Ayer's Cathartic Pills

Possible Ingredients: Jalap, ginger, aloes, gamboge, colocynth pulp, podophyllin, oil peppermint, oil spearmint

Form: Pellet

Physical Description: Dark brown/black in color. Small and spherical, with what appears to be a compact smooth surface (however not smooth as if bearing an outer coating)

Size (mm): 4

Elements Present at 20.0 keV, grouped by Qualitative Peak Size: Small: Iron (Fe); Very small: Copper (Cu), Calcium (Ca), Silver (Ag), Potassium (K); Detectable: Zinc (Zn), Silicon (Si), Manganese (Mn), Sulfur (S)

Elements Present at 40.98 keV, grouped by Qualitative Peak Size: Very small: Aluminum (Al); Small: Iron (Fe); Detectable: Silicon (Si), Tungsten (W), Tantalum (Ta), Rubidium (Rb)

Method of Analysis: A combination of EDXRF and 1H NMR was used to help determine these compositions. When analyzing for a wide spectrum of elements, a semi-quantitative system was determined. A 1,000 ppm Pb standard was used to compare against peak sizes of the unknowns.

References (1): The Merck Index an encyclopedia of Chemicals, Drugs, and Biologicals, Tenth edition, Published by Merck and Co., Inc. Rahway, N. J. USA 1983.

References (2): Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart, Published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, PO Box 2225, Chapel Hill North Carolina 27515. 2009

Citation: Examination of the Patent Medicines and Nostrums Archived at The Henry Ford via Energy Dispersive Xray Fluorescence and Multi-nuclear NMR. Danielle Garshott (1), Elizabeth McDonald (1), Andrew Diefenbach (1), Thomas Sanday (1), Mary Fahey (2), and Mark A. Benvenuto (1) -- (1)Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Detroit Mercy, 4001 W. McNichols Road, Detroit, MI 48221-3038; (2)The Henry Ford, 20900 Oakwood Boulevard, Dearborn, MI 48124-5029.

Connect 3

Discover curious connections between artifacts.

Learn More