Dating deposits using patent medicine bottles

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Three or so years ago, I posted about a rather attractive nineteenth century bottle that had contained Hayman’s Balsam of Horehound.

At the time I was more interested in how a bottle of a patent medicine manufactured in South Wales had ended up in Chiltern on the other side of the world, and uncovered a story powered by advertising – basically a search of online auction sites showed the bottles turning up in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, and a comparative search of Trove, Papers Past, and Welsh Newspapers online showed how Hayman’s had reused the same advertising copy.

And you could argue that this showed the first flickers of globalization.

Today I did something a little different.

I searched for “balsam of Horehound” on both Trove and Papers Past and counted the relative occurrences of individual brands for the first ten pages on each site.

Grossly unscientific, but it showed that the two most advertised brands were Arnold’s and Hendry’s in Australia and Arnold’s and Ayre’s in New Zealand.

So, what does the distribution look like in Australia:

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We can see that Balsam of Horehound was very much a thing between roughly 1870 and 1900. If we break it down to the individual brands we see

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That Hayman’s had a short peak around 1880 – roughly around when the product was also being advertised in Wales. (Unfortunately, there’s no distant reading tool analogous to QueryPic for Welsh Newspapers online, so I’m afraid I’m basing the dates for Wales on the human eyeball.)

What we see is that Arnold’s rapidly becomes the dominant product, rapidly superseding Hayman’s.

Hendry’s, which turns up in advertising as a competitor to Arnold’s really doesn’t figure until even later, and even then was not so heavily promoted.

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In New Zealand, mentions of Balsam of Horehound start to become significant a little earlier than in Australia and appear to be a bit more ‘peaky’. I don’t have an explanation for the peakiness of the data – one hypothesis I could conceivably test would be winter rainfall to see if products were advertised more heavily in wetter years.

Graphing the two most common brands, plus Hayman’s,

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One sees basically the same pattern as in Australia, with Arnold’s displacing Hayman’s from the mid 1880’s and Ayre’s competing with Arnold’s from the 1890’s.

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So, what does this all mean?

For a start when dating deposits, we can say that any deposit containing Hayman’s bottles is unlikely to be much later than the mid 1880’s – the bottles are readily identifiable due to their embossing.

Unfortunately, I havn’t been able to find an image of an Arnold’s bottle so am unable to say if they are similarly identifiable, but being able to tie Hayman’s to a quite short window around 1880 certainly would help date assemblages found on abandoned house sites

(Incidentally, Kirstienne Graham (The Archaeological Potential of Medicinal Advertisements – AUSTRALASIAN HISTORICAL ARCHAEOLOGY, 23, 2005) has proposed a similar use of patent medicine bottles as a dating tool, albeit using different methodology.)

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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