Last week I went digging for treasure with Timbits at the bottom of a deep hole in downtown Toronto. In the fertile mud of the 1870 shoreline, I recovered a small Burdocks Blood Bitters bottle. Click on the picture.
Although I have seen this common proprietary medicine many times before, its memorable name always makes me smile. When I showed Tim my prize, he remarked at the bottle’s small size… His wisdom soon informed me that this small variation might actually be valuable because of its unusual small size.
‘It’s just a taster’ he explained, ‘this is what they sold for a penny at fall fairs and in promotions downtown.’ According to Tim this bottle was worth keeping. Apparently several Toronto medicine collectors are still looking for all of the T. Millburn Drug Co pieces and the small BBB is quite rare… And now I’m suddenly more curious about Burdock’s Blood Bitters.
Burdocks are those clinging weed balls that get matted into your pet’s fur, especially if they are dry. I’m sure you’ve all spent time brushing them out of a dog’s coat, and you’ve picked a few off your own jacket and pants too… But what you probably didn’t know was that burdock root has long held curative medicinal properties. Yes indeed one hundred years ago a lot of people really believed that dried and powdered burdock root was perfect cure for stomach cramps and constipation.
Called Arctium lappa by the Latin speaking monks of England, there is some history of this plant’s use in monastic life. It was mentioned in a medical text somewhere in the late 1700’s by either Hume or Locke and this inspired other writings which followed English doctors to North America in the early 1800’s. Doctors in Upper Canada were always searching for natural remedies to ease their patient’s pain and suffering. Upset stomachs and constipation were common ailments for which wealthy men could afford regular attention. Having watched all episodes of Deadwood on HBO I’ve seen the good doctor scour the woods looking for herbs to make compresses, or use his mortar and pestle to process dried plants into digestible pastes, tinctures and teas.
Researching Burdock on Wikipedia informed me that Burdock has been a favorite medicinal herb for centuries and is used for many ailments. Burdock root oil extract, also called Bur oil, was popular in Europe as a scalp treatment applied to improve hair strength, shine and body, help reverse scalp conditions, and combat hair loss. Folk herbalists consider dried burdock to be a diuretic, diaphoretic, and a blood purifying agent. The seeds of A. lappa are used in traditional Chinese medicine, under the name niupangzi.
Dried and powdered burdock root was a folk remedy for upset stomachs and constipation in late medieval England. Someone in the Milburn household must have, at one time or another dug up and dried and powdered the root of a burdock plant. A remedy was concocted for constipation, and the experiment must have succeeded... That's the story I've been looking for online, and of course that's the story I will never find.
The Acton Free Press archives page, describes the town in 1888, and features a detailed account of each building.
‘The drug and stationary store of Dr. N. McGarvin comes next. This being the only drug store in town it does a large and profitable trade. In these premises the immense proprietary medicine manufactory of Messrs. T. Milburn & Co., Toronto, originated, and here Mr. Milburn conducted the business for a number of years.'
There is no evidence that Milburn started making his Burdock’s Blood Bitters in the back of Dr. McGarvin’s druggist’s shop in Acton Ontario in 1867 however, it’s not until after he moved to Toronto five years later in 1873 that Burdocks Blood Bitters appears advertised for sale at his location on Jarvis street (near Adelaide).
Almanacs were the most popular medium used to advertise patent medicine product. These publications contained a calendar, weather forecasts, riddles, and stories. They were distributed annually and were especially popular in rural areas of the country where they were consulted throughout the year and then discarded when a new edition appeared. In the 1890s the Ayer Company, represented in Canada by Northrup and Lyman, distributed sixteen million copies in twenty-one languages throughout North America.
A classic T. Milburn & Co. advertisement for Burdock’s Blood Bitters in their 1890 Farmer’s almanac reads,
"CONSTIPATION! There is no medium through which disease so often attacks the system as by Constipation, and there is no other ill flesh is heir to more apt to be neglected, from the fact material inconvenience may not be immediately felt from the irregular action of the bowels. When there is not regular action the retention of decayed and effete matter, with its poisonous gases, soon poisons the whole system by being absorbed into it, causing piles, fistula, headache, impure blood and many other serious affections. BURDOCK BLOOD BITTERS will immediately relieve, and one bottle positively cure any case of Constipation."
Burdock’s Blood Bitters was a ‘Temperance Drink’. The most important part of the BBB story is probably its rise in popularity during the Temperance movement.
One hundred years ago there was a social movement, led predominantly by women and priests, to ban alcohol for sale in any public venue. The temperance movement eventually created prohibition and something less commonly talked about, temperance drinks. These are beverages, disguised as therapeutic medicines that contain very high amounts of alcohol.
Burdock’s Blood Bitters had almost twenty percent alcohol, yet the advertising shows women and children holding a large bottle of this healthy vegetable extract. I’m pretty sure most men and women who consumed the elixir probably knew there was alcohol present in the mixture.
JD GRANDY’s Inquiry
On May 10th 1937 the American Medical Association reported to a query by J.D. Grandy on the properties of Burdock’s Blood Bitters by quoting a 1914 report made by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station which concluded
‘This ‘safe’ remedy contains over 19 percent alcohol and 4.86 percent solids (most of which is sugar) and alkaloids possibly derived from hydrastis. The amount of vegetable matter is small, certainly not enough to bring the results claimed.’
The T. Milburn Co. folded during the economic depression of the 1930’s, (just before prohibition was repealed in 1933). On a curious note, burdock is making a minor resurgence in popularity in England where it’s mixed with dandelion nectar in a popular new soft drink.
And Gwen Sutherland Kaiser, a famous American mixologist, is now having fun with burdock in a fashionable new cocktail he just created called ‘Burdock Bubbly’
This is a home-brewed burdock root infusion mixed with sparkling wine. Burdock has “a woodsy, earthy flavor” and that “in Britain the burdock/dandelion cordial is a best seller!” It’s also known as a blood purifier.
And believe it or not burdock is still being sold as medicine – acne medication!
So after a wee bit of digging, I know that my small Burdock’s Blood Bitters bottle is a unique piece of history - its a keeper.