Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root

December 14, 2016

Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root Kidney medicine began in the mid-1870s and in time became a household name. It was the creation of Dr. S(ylvester) Andral Kilmer (1840–1924) who developed a line of patent remedies in Binghamton, New York.

By 1895, the Kilmer line consisted of 18 different herbal medicines, including Indian Cough Cure/Consumption Oil (!), Female Remedy (“The Great Blood Purifier and System Regulator”) and Ocean Weed Heart Remedy.

Dr. Kilmer was joined in 1878 by his brother Jonas, who later became an equal partner and in 1892 bought full interest in the manufacturing company. Meanwhile, Jonas’ son, Willis Sharpe Kilmer, began to extensively promote their most famous and successful medicine, Swamp Root, which had previously been sold only locally (Fike 2006, 101, 208).

The product had several incarnations—perhaps originally as Swamp Root Kidney Cure, then Swamp Root Kidney Remedy. As shown by the large aqua-glass bottle in the photograph, it became “DR. /KILMER’S / SWAMP- / ROOT / KIDNEY / LIVER & / BLADDER REMEDY,” the embossed lettering appearing in an indented panel representing a kidney. On one side panel is “BINGHAMTON, N.Y.” As usual, the smooth “back” of the bottle was actually the front, because it originally bore the paper label. (This bottle measures about 3” wide by 13/4” deep by 81/4” tall.)

Pictured with the bottle is a miniature one embossed “SAMPLE BOTTLE / DR. KILMER’s / SWAMP-ROOT / KIDNEY CURE / BINGHAMTON, N.Y.” Such sample bottles exist for some other patent medicines, and I am always pleased to find one to place beside a “grown up” bottle. (This one—just 1” diameter by 33/16” tall—still has its shrunken cork inside.)

Swamp Root contained—according to a bottle from ca. 1930—in addition to 10% alcohol, no fewer than 16 ingredients, including golden seal root, skullcap leaves, venice turpentine (larch gum), peppermint, cinnamon, valerian root, and sassafras. It was, the then manufacturer said, a diuretic for the kidneys (promoting the flow of urine to eliminate waste matter) and a mild laxative. (It was sold in a screw-cap bottle contained in a bright orange box bearing an engraved portrait of “S. Andral Kilmer, M.D.”) (See Smithsonian 2016.)

Swamp Root declined after implementation of the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, which subjected many products to testing, demanded honest labeling (the word “cure,” for example, was all but forbidden), and required listing of ingredients. Medical experts regarded Swamp Root as pure quackery, potentially dangerous and lacking evidence that it cured any disease of the kidney or liver (“Willis” 2016).

References

Fike, Richard E. 2006. The Bottle Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Historic, Embossed Medicine Bottles. Caldwell, NJ: The Blackburn Press.

Smithsonian. 2016. Online at https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_714581; accessed December 7, 2016.

“Willis Sharpe Kilmer.” Online at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willis_Sharpe_Kilmer; accessed December 6, 2016.

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