“Neither Snake Oils nor Miracle Cures: Interpreting Nineteenth-Century Proprietary Medicines”


Patent and proprietary medicines were immensely popular in the U.S. in the nineteenth century. These unregulated and relatively affordable mixtures promised astounding cures without a physician or hospital and appealed to people of nearly all backgrounds. Archaeologists frequently discover such bottles and jars at sites across the country. Interpreting how and why residents used them is challenging, however. Documentary records show a single product was often advertised as a cure for multiple illnesses, some of which we no longer recognize. Medical formularies and chemical analyses often identify ingredients that are no longer part of our own medical toolkits. Additionally, archaeologists have frequently begun their interpretations of these perplexing commodities with two problematic premises: first, that they were lesser alternatives to physicians’ prescriptions and second, that consumers used medicines as directed by advertisements or for recreational intoxication. These premises have led to explanations that overemphasize consumers’ class status and underemphasize their agency, cultural worldviews, and other aspects of their identities, such as gender. In contrast, this talk will re-examine contemporary assumptions about these medical mixtures by putting them back into the landscape of nineteenth-century medicine. It is part of a larger project to consider the interplay of culture, class, local context, and the material qualities of medicines in consumers’ health-related decisions. Using patent medicines found in association with Irish immigrant residences at the Five Points site in Manhattan as a case study, this talk will suggest that these medicines were neither snake oils nor miracle cures, but reasonable nineteenth-century medical options that consumers actively used in ways that resonated with their own worldviews and addressed their specific needs.

Where did your interest in this subject come from?

My interest in these particular patent medicines from the Five Points site originated in a research paper for a course in historical archaeology while I was in graduate school at Columbia University. I had previously researched a colonial Mexican herbal manuscript for my MA thesis at University of Chicago, and I was keen to work on a local health-related topic while in New York City. The Five Points site report, edited by Rebecca Yamin, had just been made public, and my advisor, Nan Rothschild, suggested I take a look at it. What started with my initial interest in soda water bottles found at the site has led to many projects, including my dissertation about illness and injury among Irish immigrants in mid-nineteenth-century New York City, a few articles, and an in-progress book manuscript. In some sense, all of this work is an example of how starting with simple questions about a single object or type of object can lead to many new avenues of research.

How does this research question intersect with your other intellectual interests?
This project unites several of my long-standing intellectual and personal interests in medicine, archaeology, folklore, Irish studies, and American history. In addition to the genuine thrill of discovering new things in the ground and in the archives, historical archaeology appeals to me because of its ability to bring to light aspects of the past that have been under- or misrepresented in mainstream written records and public discourse. In this presentation, and in my other related projects, I aim to show how the material remains of health-related practices, when interpreted through a lens that appreciates the cultural worldviews and the material conditions of the people involved, can reveal people’s previously underacknowledged agency.

Why is this question important to you?
The question of what these medicine bottles mean—how and why did mid-nineteenth-century Irish immigrants use them—is important to me because the answers help us not only to better understand life in nineteenth-century New York City, but also to rehumanize a group of people who, at the time, were stereotyped as subhuman, foreign, and expendable laborers. One of the first waves of immigrants to the relatively new nation, the Irish of this period fled desperate conditions in their homeland, only to meet difficult working and living conditions in New York City as well as significant anti-Irish prejudice, much of it centering on real and imagined bodily difference, including supposed susceptibility to epidemic illnesses. By focusing on the embodied experiences of Irish immigrants as well as their own attitudes toward and strategies of bodily care, I aim to confront these negative stereotypes. I see this larger project as important and relevant today because it exposes the same false ideas and negative tropes that nativists recycled for subsequent immigrant groups and continue to unjustly and inaccurately level against present-day newcomers.

Related Readings

Linn, Meredith B. (In preparation) From “Irish Fever” to “The White Death”: A Visceral Historical Archaeology of Irish Immigrant Life in New York City 1845-1870.

————(submitted for review)
“Neither Snake Oils nor Miracle Cures: Interpreting Nineteenth-Century Patent Medicines.” Historical Archaeology.

2019. “The New York Irish: Fashioning Urban Identities in Nineteenth-Century New York City.” In “O Brave New World”: Archaeologies of Changing Identities, edited by Diane F. George and Bernice Kurchin, 39-66. University Press of Florida.

2014.“Irish Immigrant Healing Magic in Nineteenth-Century New York City.” Historical Archaeology 48(3):144-165.

2010. “Elixir of Emigration: Soda Water and the Making of Irish Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City.” Historical Archaeology 44(4):69-109.