Cholera morbus, dropsy, catarrh, and worm fever, how our ancestors must have suffered.
During the nineteenth century, many Americans, scattered in small towns, were far removed from professional medical care. Left to their own devices to deal with sudden earaches, chills, or attacks of rheumatism, they, like us, prudently maintained a variety of cure-alls in their homes. But instead of stocking up on over-the-counter Tylenol, eardrops, and decongestants as we do, they often relied on natural remedies for even the most serious conditions. Imagine battling illness armed with vinegar, oils, and an array of home made potions and poultices.
Eventually, brand name medical compounds, also known as patent medicines, which contained combinations of roots and herbs, became available. Many of them, like Carter’s Little Liver Pills, Fletcher’s Castoria, and Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, still strike a bell today. So do their oft-vaunted claims of "sick made well" and "weak made strong." Homeopathic remedies, those reputed to cure disease by giving patients minute doses of the disease itself, were also popular. Homeopaths generally prescribed several single substances, say a bit of bark, ground oyster shells, and table salt, to be taken together, but this often proved unwieldy and confusing.
So some homeopaths began compounding ready-made, easy-to-use remedies in powder or pellet form, each guaranteed to cure a variety of specific ills. In 1897, the Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalog offered a choice of twelve homeopathic cures for the grand sum of $1.50. With homeopathic compounded medicines at the ready in their home cabinets, farmers in Iowa and drummers in Indian Territory no longer need fear bouts of ague, piles, salt rheum, brain fag, or the dreaded St. Vitus Dance.
To calm skeptics, Sears guaranteed that their homeopathic specifics were full strength and in fresh condition. Furthermore, they claimed that all were prepared under the supervision of an "old experienced" homeopathic physician. That old physician may very well have been Frederick Humphreys himself, who founded the Doctor Humphreys’ Specific Homeopathic Medicine Company in 1844. Humphreys’ Specifics, which he also called Remedies, became known across the globe.
Today, some hundred and fifty years later, homeopathy still lives. But with the Twentieth Century’s growing strides in microbiology and pharmacology, Humphrey’s Remedies slowly fell out of favor. What does remain, however, is a fascinating collection of Humphreys’ memorabilia.
For starters, curious collectors can purchase Humphrey’s books on homeopathy. An original Dysentery and Its Homoeopathic Treatment, published in 1863, sold recently for over a hundred dollars. Humphreys’ Mentor and Medical Advisor, a treatise featuring sections on nursing the sick, hygiene, and disease and of course, homeopathic products formulated and sold by the author, generally sells for a bit less. With a bit of luck, however, collectors may unearth recently published copies for as little as five dollars.
Since Humphrey’s cures for humans were actually a complete system, he sold them in ready-made wooden cabinets. To avoid potentially fatal confusion while its owners were deep in the throes of pain, worry, and angst, inside drawers were numbered with correspondingly numbered cures. In other words, drawer number five housed the number five cure, compounded specifically for dysentery, griping [sic], and bilious colic. Number nineteen offered a cure for catarrh, influenza, and "cold in head." And number thirty-four did a number on sore throat, quinsy, and ulcerated throat.
Original Humphreys’ Remedies wooden cabinets like these still surface occasionally at estate sales and in antique stores. One dating back to approximately 1900 and about the size of a microwave oven, may command hundreds of dollars. Cabinets boasting Humphrey’s original remedies, unopened, may command thousands. And rare triangular-shaped Humphreys’ Remedies cabinet, obviously designed for a corner of a room, may go for considerably more. Still, prices vary. Naturally, anything that alters a cabinet’s original finish, like painting or sanding, reduces its value. And knobless, damaged, or non-existent drawers, signs of use, indifferent care, or the relentless passing of time, also take their toll.
Humphrey, enjoying fame and fortune, soon branched out into veterinary medicine as well. To avoid all possible confusion between the two, however, Humphreys’ products for human consumption were numbered (#3 for teething, #16 for malaria, # 27 for kidney diseases, and #34 for quinsy, for example) while his veterinary cures, were lettered (D for Worms, F for Colic, etc.)
A Humphreys Veterinary Remedies Medicine Box, with original red paint, labels, hardware, and keys, may be had for as little as fifty dollars. But veterinary cabinets that include their original tin illustrative covers intact, far rarer, are far more valuable. One boasting a colorful farmyard scene, for example, recently sold for over $1500. Another one, evidently in much better condition, commanded over $3,500.
Some of Humphreys’ Remedies cabinet doors, like their veterinary counterparts, were also adorned with colorful tin signs detailing their wares. "Humphreys’ Remedies," curved the large letters across the top. Below, divided into two neat rows, appeared the names of various diseases flanked by the numbers that denoted their cures. Again, to avoid all confusion, medical conditions were often described in full. A dreaded bout of influenza might be known as either Grip, LaGrippe, or Grippe in days gone by, so all three versions appeared together on Humphreys’ sign. And since itching, swollen skin might not be eczema at all, but "erysipelas" (skin inflammation accompanied by fever) or even more sinister-sounding "eruptions," never fear, all, curable by the very same homeopathic nostrum, appeared on the same line. This way, even the faint of heart could dose themselves with impunity. And advertised at just twenty-five cents to a dollar a powder, each cure was indeed a bargain.
While original Humphreys’ signs are fairly rare, faithful replicas are readily available on the market. Though highly colored, they are not painted. Instead, using a process popularized in the early 1900′s, Humphreys’ signs, tinted with finely ground glass crystals, are kiln fired, which fuses the color to their heavy gauge metal backdrop. Their lettering, in contrast, is white.
Humphreys’ signs, true pieces of Americana, would make unusual gifts for historians, medical personnel, or collectors of medical antiques.
Click here to discuss this story and more in the AntiqueTrader.com forums.