Thingamajig: medication packaging

By Alethea Drexler

Archives Assistant

For this week’s Thingamajig, I dug out some of the more picturesque vintage medication packages.  Sometime, seemingly in the 1940’s or 1950’s, medication boxes and bottles started to look very much like modern boxes and bottles, but some of the older examples are pretty artistic.

(These photographs have been spliced together with Photoshop so you could see multiple views of the same package at once.)


Digifoline was a digoxin injectible that came in glass ampules.  Five ampules came nestled in slots in a clamshell box with a foxglove (a natural source of digoxin) on the front.


Eupurgo was a laxative.  “Dioxyphthalophenon” is now phenolphthalein, with which most high-school chemistry students will be familiar since it changes color in acidic and basic solutions, and is used as a pH indicator in titrations.

Humphrey's Homeopathic Preparation

Humphrey’s Homeopathic Preparation: A throat remedy.  This one has a particularly Victorian label design and lists the ingredients:

Honey Bee (Apis Mellifica) 1X .30%

Mercurous Iodide (Merc. Iod. Flavus) 8X .30%

Poke (Phytolacca Decandra) 1X .30%

Venom (Lachesis) 8X .30%  (I’m a little skeptical about the claim that Humphrey’s of New York actually had a supply of pit viper venom, but maybe it’s just as well if they didn’t.)

. . . all of which are toxic, even though they’re in small concentrations here.  Furthermore, they were probably dissolved in alcohol.  I guess lots of pains go away if you take enough alcohol-based throat remedies . . .

Humphrey’s is still very much alive, selling homeopathic remedies.

Pa-Pay-Ans Bell

Pa-Pay-Ans Bell: This awkwardly-named papaw derivative was intended to quell nausea.  Ironically, according to Wikipedia and to a lot of the herbalist literature I encountered while putting this installation of Thingamajig together, papaw contains small amounts of a natural pesticide that will cause nausea and vomiting if too much is ingested.

The references I found for this dated between 1908 and 1918.  Around that time, it streamlined its name to “Bell-Ans.”  Here’s a November 5, 1918 ad from the San Antonio Express, which shows it being sold in a bottle, and this is a post-1918 tin.  Interestingly, the tin markets it for indigestion and “bad breath”.  Bad breath was a pet ailment in the 1920’s, when Lambert Pharmaceutical manufactured a consumer panic about it in a campaign to sell Listerine antiseptic.

I found references to a sodium bicarbonate antacid still around under the name Bell/Ans as late as 1994.


Saraka: At first, I couldn’t find anything on this one, but then I changed my tack and it all became very entertaining.

According to the back of the tin, which is only about an inch and a half tall in real life, the active ingredients are “bassorit” and “frangula.”  Bassorit, according to Saraka’s ads (the only place where I could find any references to it) was a gum made from “the sap of a tree found in India.”  Frangula is a subgenus of the buckthorn plant, which does have purgative properties but is apparently no longer considered safe.

Saraka seems to have promoted itself heavily as “exercise” for the intestines, and if that image doesn’t make you uncomfortable, I don’t know what will.  Its ads are full of people riding bicycles and playing tennis or golf.

In 1940, the American Journal of Digestive Diseases published an article that found that gum laxatives could actually make people more constipated.

Effective or not, the advertisements are memorable:

Goodbye, Worry (1937) ad on Flickr.

Saraka for Constipation (circa 1939) ad at Kitchen Retro.

Selection of ads (1936-1947) offered by a graphic arts website.


Inbad the Ailer: Amazing Recovery (1939)

Watkins Corn Salve

Watkins Corn Salve: That’s “corn” as in, it was intended to be used on blemishes of the feet; it wasn’t made from corn.  The salve actually came in a little tin inside the box, but we only have the box.  The tin looked like this.

The active ingredient here was salicylic acid, which is still used in treatments for skin blemishes.  It’s also part of the active ingredient in Pepto-Bismol.

Posted in Archives, Medical Archives, Thingamajig
One comment on “Thingamajig: medication packaging
  1. tamarta67 says:

    ‘Saraka’ is also the extreme slang term for bum, in Ukrainian.

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