Burdock Blood Bitters

Burdock Blood Bitters! You try saying that three times fast while we work on introducing it. This week, we’re back to bitters. Not the ale and not the cocktail kind (though we’ve talked about how THIS kind of bitters led to the latter before), but the wondrous, magical, spectacular, patent medicine kind! (Have we sold you yet? No? Then read on…we have testimonials!)

So, the Burdock Blood Bitters Almanac and Key to Health isn’t conveniently numbered or given editions. But, given the holdings of other institutions and the existence of other copies, it appears to have been published by a company in the United States (Foster, Milburn & Co. of Buffalo, NY) and a company in Canada (T. Milburn & Co. of Toronto, Ont.). Publication dates vary, and it may have been issued in Canada first, where the earliest one appears in 1866. The earliest date I could find for a U.S. edition was 1882 for the 1883 calendar year. And the almanac was still going strong in 1934! Whatever was in Burdock Blood Bitters, it was doing something (or at least convincing people it was)! We don’t get a nice clean list of ingredients (this was well before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906), but we are told that “B. B. B.” is a vegetable compound (pg. 2) and on page 10 (not pictured) that it “does not contain a particle of Mineral or hurtful drugs.” Vegetable compounds were not uncommon, made in the home or commercially, and we have talked about at one other producer of them before, Lydia Pinkham. Then there’s Charlie White-Moon, whose concoction was made of “roots & herbs.”

Despite the fact that patent medicines like this suggest they cure a lot of problems (hence the nickname “cure-alls”–though they often cured nothing), some companies might have admitted to limits, whether overtly or subtlety. Burdock Blood Bitters Almanac and Key to Health, for example, is loaded with testimonials and advertisements for not only itself, but other products, too. If you’ve been following us for a long time, you might recall our first post about patent medicines, back in 2012–“The Cure for What Ails You.” It featured a trade card for a product called Dr. Thomas’ Eclectric Oil.

woman with fandescription of ailments cured

Although we still don’t know exactly how long “Dr. Thomas” (probably just a moniker and not a real person, as was sometimes the case) was in business, we know the product was sold from at least the late 19th century (and we can now confirm 1888) into the 1910s. So, imagine the exciting surprise of finding Burdock’s almanac advertising it, too!

Burdock Blood Bitters: Almanac and Key to Health, 1888. Dr. Thomas' Eclectric Oil advertisement.
Burdock Blood Bitters: Almanac and Key to Health, 1888. Dr. Thomas’ Eclectric Oil advertisement.

And there are a few other full page ads for other products, including this one:

Burdock Blood Bitters: Almanac and Key to Health, 1888. Hanson's Magic Corn Salve advertisement.
Burdock Blood Bitters: Almanac and Key to Health, 1888. Hanson’s Magic Corn Salve advertisement.

While there may be a little bit of overlap between what Burdock Blood Bitter and Dr. Thomas’ Eclectric Oil claim to cure, it isn’t much. And Hanson’s Magic Corn Salve is right out of both their wheelhouses. So, it’s fair to guess, if someone will buy one product to fix a laundry list of problems, they might be willing to buy some others. It’s good advertising…and good business.

Interested in other Burdock advertisements? At least one other edition of Burdock Blood Bitters Almanac and Key to Health, from the Canadian publisher in 1913, is available online through the Internet Archive. East Carolina University has one of Burdock’s trade cards in their digital collection from about the same time as our almanac. I’ll try to get the entirety of our 1887 scanned and posted  in our digital platform, Special Collections Online. In the meantime, you can check out the nearly 200 publications and 6 manuscript collections in the History of Food & Drink Collection represented there.

February is Black History Month and I hope to have one or two posts this month on that theme, starting next week. Until then, remember to avoid all those B. B. B. imitators!

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