Rev. Downs’ Elixir

February 5, 2016

Shown in the accompanying photograph, this 12-paneled aqua bottle (hand blown in a two-piece mold and measuring about 5 38’’ tall by  1 1316’’ diameter) is embossed “REV. N. H. DOWNS’ / VEGETABLE / BALSAMIC / ELIXIR.”

It was (according to an 1882–83 directory ad) touted as “a sure cure for Coughs, Colds, Whooping-Cough and all Lung Diseases, when taken in season.” The advertisement continued: “People die of consumption simply because of neglect, when the timely use of this remedy would have cured them at once. Fifty-two years of constant use proves the fact that no cough remedy has stood the test like Downs’ Elixir.”

The ad thus suggests that the product has been marketed since ca. 1830, but I have as yet no information on its creator, Rev. N.H. Downs. It is known to have been marketed in 1842. The 1882–83 ad lists it as a product of Henry, Johnson, & Lord of Burlington, Vermont. (It was advertised more recently—in 1929–30 and 1948—by Burlington Drug Co., Burlington, Vermont. See Richard E. Fike, The Bottle Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Historic, Embossed Medicine Bottles, Caldwell, NJ: The Blackburn Press, 2006, p. 114.)

In alchemy (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) elixir referred to a preparation sought for its supposed ability to transform other metals into gold or that could cure all ailments or maintain life indefinitely. In medicine it thus came to mean a portion with the generalized powers of a curative or restorative—typically a “cure-all” or quack remedy.

Interestingly, medicines termed elixir were in a distinct minority. The adjective balsamic is suggestive, since balsams were typically for coughs, and Downs’ “Vegetable balsamic elixir” thus follows in this regard “Congreves Celebrated Balsamic Elixir for Cough & Asthma” (again see Fike, p. 23). As it happens (according to Fike, p. 114), Downs’ elixir contained 11 12% alcohol with one grain of opium.

Opium does suppress coughs but also risks dependence. Downs’ elixir was never a “cure” for “consumption,” as tuberculosis was then called. As a consequence, in 1915, Henry, Johnson & Lord pled guilty to a federal charge (under the 1906 Food and Drug Act) of “misbranding,” regarding the product being a remedy for consumption, and was fined. (See https://archive.nlm.nih.gov/fdanj/bitstream/123456789/39193/2/54002190.txt; accessed Sept. 25, 2015.)

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