Shaker Digestive Cordial

February 14, 2013

My collection of pseudoscience and paranormal artifacts—online at http://www.skeptiseum.org —has received a new addition: a bottle embossed “Shaker Digestive Cordial/A.J. White New York.” It arrived as a gift from a thoughtful skeptic, Alan Harris of a La Cañada, California, who had queried me about it a couple of years ago. (Thanks Alan!)

The Skeptiseum is happy to receive anything related to the Shakers and their herbal and other medicinal products. They were a sect founded by a “visionary,” “Mother” Ann Lee. She sailed from England to New York in 1774 to spread her new faith in the Second Coming of Christ. The utopian adherents’ ecstatic shaking and trembling earned them their sobriquet, “Shakers,” and their farming communities became renowned for crafts of aesthetic simplicity. (See my “Ghosts at a Shaker Village,” Skeptical Briefs, Summer 2012, pp. 7–8.).

The 7-inch-tall aqua glass bottle was blown in a two-piece mold (shown by the seams, running along diagonally opposite corners and fading out partway up the neck), and then was hand-finished with a double-ring neck. It is a pretty standard bottle, consistent with the date of one of its known advertisements of “1895.” It lasted until about 1910.

Albert J. White was located at 319 Pearl St. and later 168 Duane St., New York, and was apparently the same as “A.J. White/London.” The company also offered “Laxol” (a castor-oil product), “Mother Seigel’s Curative Syrup,” and “The Shaker Family Pills” (the latter advertised in 1887 as “A cure for headaches, colds, bilious disorders and constipation”).

White helped the Shakers meet their growing need for distribution. He printed the Shaker almanacs and sold their products. He solicited agents for the purpose, noting that “The business is respectable, for all goods made by the Shakers are known to possess real merit. It can not be classed with the ordinary patent Medicines of the day, as there is no secret about its composition, the formula from which it is prepared being printed on each bottle.” (The bottle had a paper label pasted on and this eventually came off, probably because it had been buried, as suggested some iridescence to the surface of the bottle.)

The Shakers also made for White his “White’s Curative Syrup.” A Shaker record for the community at Mt. Lebanon dated October 5, 1881, stated: “Brother Benjamin came to offer the Church a chance to prepare and put up a new medicine compounded and invented by A.J. White of New York who gives preparations to the amount of twelve hundred dollars and New Lebanon gives two hundred. The Church gladly and gratefully accept [sic] the offer.” (See Amy Bess Miller, Shaker Medicinal Herbs, Pownal, VT: Storey Books, 1998, pp. 45, 49–50, 96. See also Richard E. Fike, The Bottle Book, Caldwell, NJ: The Blackburn Press, 2006, pp. 170, 186, 231.)

I have a Shaker Family Almanac of 1884, and it notes the goods therein (not mentioning the cordial) as sold wholesale by White (at 54 Warren St.). According to its standard label, the Shaker Digestive Cordial (a sort of medicinal liqueur) was “Recommended for Dyspepsia and all Diseases Arising From Deranged Digestion.” It contained Culver’s root, stillingia, blue flag, prince’s pine, princess pine, and gentian.

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