Unique Quassia Cup: Made Its Own Medicine!

March 10, 2017

The cures were in the wood of this nineteenth-century medicinal goblet. It supposedly turned ordinary water into a powerful tonic for treating fever and numerous other ailments.

The secret was Quassia wood, that is, wood from the tropical shrub or small tree Quassia amata. Also known as Bitterwood, it contains quassin, one of nature’s bitterest substances. As an herbal remedy it was an early treatment for fever, digestive problems, and many other ills including parasitic worms (“Quassia Tincture” 2017).

The genus Quassia was named by Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), the Swedish physician and naturalist who is known as “the father of modern taxonomy” (the classification of organisms). He named the plant after the first fellow botanist to have described it, Graman Quassi (1692–1787), a slave and healer in the Dutch colony of Suriname in South America. Quassi became so renowned that he won his freedom and even traveled to the Netherlands. Among his remedies was the bitter tea with which he treated intestinal parasites.

The unusual cup pictured (see photograph), now in my collection, was made from a single piece of quassia wood turned on a lathe. It measures about 29/16’’ diameter by 5’’ tall. Its paper label is tattered, but I have reconstructed its wording from another such cup (at the University of Florida College of Medicine): “QUASSIA [AMATA]. / Dr. G.G. ADAMS. / For Fever & Ague, Dyspepsia, Piles, I[nd]iges[tion], Headache & Debility.” (An instruction label was on the bottom [“Medicinal” 2017].)

A later model or knockoff was sold (according to its partially intact label) as “[Tonic cup / Pour into the cup a glass or two of water or wine which it will partake in. . . . For indigestion, debility, dyspepsia. . . .” (“Museum” 2017).

Dr. G.G. Adams, about whom little is known, produced the wooden goblets and traveled the country selling them as a cure-all. In 1881 the Weekly Standard in Lebanon, Ky., contained an ad that informed: “Dr. G.G. Adams is stopping in our city for some time selling the famous Quassia Cups. . . . Dr. Adams comes among us well recommended by the press” (see Courier-Journal 1948).

Adams may have been from Boston. According to an 1881 Druggists Circular, such cups (known “within the last half century”) were presently being made by a Boston concern. Logs imported from Jamaica were sawed into small blocks that were then turned on a lathe. (The resulting chips were also retained and sold for “insect-destroying purposes.”) The previous year the company had produced six hundred gross of the items, which sold wholesale at one dollar per dozen (“Quassia Cups” 1881).


Courier-Journal, Louisville, Ky. 1948. June 12, p. 5.

Medicinal goblet. 2017. Online at www.ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00094844/00009/3j; accessed February 27, 2017.

Medicinal goblet. 2017. Online at http://www.mohma.org/instruments/category/quackery/quassia_cup_2/; accessed February 27, 2017.

Quassia Cups. 1881. The Druggists Circular and Chemical Gazette. November, p. 175.

Quassia Tincture. 2017 Online at www.tropilab.com/quassiatincture.html; accessed February 27, 2017.

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