Friday, June 15, 2007

The Quest in Campbellford Ontario

About this time last summer a digger named Little Hole went looking for Campbellford's first municipal dump. He found it. And although it had been probed by other diggers, to his surprise it was still full of gingerbeers and early Canadian glass.

The survey map above was made in 1878 and shows Campbellford as a thriving settlement on both sides of the Trent River. Notice the black dashed line that bisects the image? That's the proposed railway line which was to be built two years later in 1880.... That railroad line was moved south and Little Hole used this map to help find the treasures documented in this article - finding the real railway line was the key to finding the 1885 town dump.

X marks the spot! Little Hole found the place outside anyone's thoughts or perception, but still inside the actual town of Campbellford. Here beneath his shovel was a (mostly) virgin dump and Little Hole could only imagine the historic treasures it might contain...

Little Hole immediately called for some help sinking a hole. And I of course embraced the challenge - like a borrowing rodent I moved dump.

We spent evenings and weekends at the site all summer long, and really came to know the place. The Campbellford 1885 town dump is in fact many dumps, spread out over about fifty years time. Under three feet of nondescript ash and dirt, there were about a dozen well stratified layers of trash. Each of these pockets is a period in time. Each can tell the story of the community, to anyone willing to listen. Every relic unearthed is another sentence in the chronology of Campbellford's existence.

The pearl ash in the stratigraphy is from two major sources - very hot fires both here at the dump, and the population of the town produces furnace ashes - which was also mixed with lime and used as road paving material. Some of this ash could be road paving that's been removed. Up until the early 1900's the streets in Campbellford were 'paved' in hard packed potash made by settlers burning hardwood trees while clearing their land.

Little Hole, who collects 1800's Ontario ginger beers bottles found this rare and special treasure on a hot night in late August. Here he is on site holding a mint James Thompson ginger beer bottle from nearby Hamilton Ontario.

August 17th 2006 was a very special day. On that day Little Hole and myself, Rob Campbell hit a big pocket of well preserved ginger beer bottles, and lots of rare whiskys and sodas. It was the mother-of-all goodie veins and we diggers chased it down, under a tree, right to the very bottom of the dump.

Before ‘flipping for picks’ (like most dumpdiggers we flip a coin to see keeps what) we lined up our symphony of dug relics to collectively admire the hoard.

Pic of the Picks The Quest in Campbellford Ontario culminated in the best cache to which I've ever contributed. Little Hole snapped this photo late in the afternoon and I love the patches of light on the trees in the swamp behind the dump.

The whiskeys, inks, medicines and ginger beer bottles recovered here were waiting in the earth for almost one hundred and twenty years.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Burdock Blood Bitters

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.

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Friday, June 8, 2007

Some Lonely Place

As the sun sinks below high rise apartments in the west, Timbit and his team use their shovels to travel back in time. Their destination: Toronto 1885.

‘That’s the bottom of the lake there.’ Tim points to the line of black mud on top of gray clay that slopes down along the recently excavated walls of a huge square hole in the ground. This particular evening’s dig zone is at the bottom of a future parking garage in the bowels of what will someday be a very tall residential tower.

Myself and the other diggers marvel at how the excavation neatly bisects the mud of Toronto’s old shoreline. This particular place was once the lake bottom over which the region's indigenous people paddled canoes, and over which the Americans disembarked 1600 soldiers from twelve schooners on April 27th 1813 when they captured Fort York.

This lonely place was at least ten feet under water, and at the end of a long wooden pier in the 1840s. But as Toronto expanded in the 1850's, and the Grand Trunk Railroad consumed the shoreline, the wharves and fishing docks were pushed farther and farther out into the lake as new land was created by dumping the city's own rubbish into the mud on shore.

Today this black mud is full of industrial age relics – every scoop has metal shrapnel and broken pottery, bits of glass, ash, and bones. And today this century old trash is pay dirt for antiques collectors... like me.
Tim works a rich vein of undisturbed dump alone as the other diggers pick along the site walls. He tells me, 'It took an Act of Legislation in 1857 to transfer the land to the Grand Trunk Railroad and give it the right of way along the harbour.
The whole crew gets excited when Tim dredges up the first ginger beer bottle of the dig, a well preserved cream colored blank. The irony is that the blanks probably came from small micro breweries that used paper labels on generic stone bottles. It would have been one of the small brands competing for market share with the major players like Wilson's and Verner's. By the 1880s the big bottlers could afford to have the pottery works in Bristol England custom stencil their names on the sides of each vessel.
'Why are the blanks always in mint condition?'
The other diggers found a vein of small glass pill bottles of all shapes and sizes including cobalt blue specimens in fair condition. My favourite is a tiny clear glass bottle marked W.R. STEWARD / TORONTO.

Probably the best discovery of the entire dig was this rare toothpaste pot lid. Before toothpaste came in squeeze tubes it was made available in metal and pottery jars. Well decorated lids are very collectible.

This particular lid reads PARISIENNE TOOTHPASTE and it features lots of text detailing the product. An American dentist named Dr. Washington Wentworth Sheffield invented the squeeze tube in 1892, and his firm probably helped brush the Parisienne Toothpaste company out of business. Between 1892 and 1900, sales of Dr. Sheffield's Creme Dentifrice boomed at the expense of every other manufacturer. After revolutionizing the toothpaste market, Dr. Sheffield expanded operations to make squeeze tubes for dozens of other products.

This little bottle really sparked my curiosity. The cork still securely seals the vessel and its exterior is squeaky clean. Click on the picture; it expands to an enormous size! The embossed message, all in capitol letters, reads J.D. MATHESON /OPPOSITE ROSSIN HOUSE / TORONTO.

This very curious little chemist's bottle has some interesting mysteries... I know you all really want to know who was J.D. Matheson? And where and what exactly is this Rossin House? And as there is nobody alive and handy to tell us this information, I had to research it online.

First let's explore the mystery of J.D. Matheson, for its quite intriguing. The name is connected to the History of the Queens Plate , North America's oldest horse race. Believe it or not, their history records that two of J.D. Matheson's horses (Harry Cooper and Colonist) won the Queen’s Plate in 1888 and 1889 respectively - in both cases with the same jockey and trainer! Now I’m really curious. Could this same horse owner named J.D. Matheson also be a dispensing chemist in downtown Toronto? I'm thinking that perhaps he's a pharmacist that's maybe also a veterinarian with his own horse farm?
More research online at the Toronto Archives uncovers a man named Arthur James Matheson who was a Canadian politician. He served as a Conservative Member of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario for Lanark South from 1898 to 1914, and later, as provincial treasurer from 1905 to 1913. I think he might be the namesake for Matheson Blvd in Mississauga...
The best piece of information recovered centers on a man named Angus Matheson who was a druggist and chemist with a business on York Street at King St. The digital collections of the Toronto Public Library have reproduced several Toronto business directories, and a chemist named Angus Matheson can be seen at 65 York St in the year 1856, and then again in 1886 at 100 York Street, which is, if I'm not mistaken, across from Rossin House.

The Rossin House was a fabulous hotel, built in the age of fabulous hotels. It rivaled the Queen's Hotel on Front Street and the fire-proof King Edward Hotel built in 1873 on King Street east of Yonge St. The Rossin House was erected before them, in 1855-57 when the railroad dominated local politics. The late 1850s was an age of speculation which followed the economic depression of the 1840's.
The once famous and now almost forgotten Toronto hotel appears here and there in the history of great happenings in the city. I found this terrific reference in a musical archive of sorts here is the link that chronicles a night in 1888 when Governor General Lord Stanely watched the Toronto Fire Brigade from the balcony of the Rossin House.
'Dinner was at Government House and, on the balcony of Rossin House at midnight, their Excellencies enjoyed a dynamic demonstration by the engines and hosers of the fire brigade. They missed the genuine excitement. At the alarm, the hose-reel and the ladder truck charged out of the Lombard station and down Church Street. The hoser tried a wide sweep to turn onto King, got caught in the car-track and was rammed and flipped by the ladder, the poor horse being thrown onto the sidewalk on its back.'

This building was the first of a marvellous age of urban castles. The above image can be found in the Toronto Public Library, which also has more details about the hotel.
There's also lots of great information about Rossin House Hotel, 1855-7 on - they have reproduced a period publication with some exquisite details.

To the best of my reckoning the Rossin House hotel was demolished in the 1960s and the land was redeveloped into the Royal Bank Towers.
While digging I looked east at the skyline - a traffic helicopter was idling overhead reporting conditions on the Gardiner Expressway. I suddenly wondered what a colonist would think if he could behold Toronto now...

Friday, June 1, 2007

Timbitz collects 'stoneware' ginger beer bottles.

Tim is a time traveler. He must be. He has the finest collection of Ontario ginger beer bottles ever assembled in the basement of his house.

Such stoneware is extremely rare; it dates back to the 1850's and heralds a time of homesteaders and hardy pioneers. Some of the hand painted, hand glazed pottery pieces in his collection are in fact, one-of-a-kind.

So how did just one man, still under the age of fifty, get his hands on so many flawless examples of Canadian history? He dug them up.

Tim is a veteran dumpdigger that has been poking around in our ancestor's rubbish piles since he was a boy. He found his first old dump while out squirrel hunting with a pellet gun when he was just twelve years old. Now he's logged over thirty years experience and has thousands of prizes - and his empiric knowledge is truly priceless.

Be sure and read all of The Adventures of Timbitz at