Glass past

For this collector, our medical history resides in bottles

Where does history live? In the mist over battlefields and in the voices of those who were there, sure. But it can also live in knobbed, fluted and pebbled glass. Dr. Sherwood Gorbach, professor of family medicine and community health and of medicine, knows history in this most fragile form. Over the past three decades, he has quietly assembled a personal stash of several hundred U.S. patent medicine bottles dating from the late 19th century. Many still contain their original contents.
sherwood gorbach
Sherwood Gorbach with some of his patent medicine bottles Kathy Tarantola

Gorbach began assembling the collection in 1975 out in California. He found he missed the sense of a deep past that seemed to cling so easily to the stone walls and rumpled fields of New England. “Almost nothing of the history of California has been preserved. There are a few missions—that’s all,” says Gorbach, who started buying patent medicine bottles, instinctively at first, as a means of retrieving the past and immersing himself in its flavors.

Before the advent of government regulation around 1920, patent medicines—so-called because they were available without prescription and protected by patents—were the beverage of choice for millions of Americans. “A hundred years ago, these drinks were used as ‘tonics,’ “ Gorbach notes. “Some were as strong [in alcohol content] as a highball.” Many also contained narcotics such as cocaine, heroin and laudanum, which was especially popular in the South. Gorbach points out that on the day these patent medicines became illegal, “a lot of people had to go cold turkey.”

Lydia Pinkham, the Massachusetts native who dispensed “Pinkham’s Little Pink Pills,” stands out as a curious feminist heroine amid the gleaming ranks of bottles in the professor’s care. Pinkham’s pills were intended specifically as treatment for female ailments like menstrual cramps or menopausal symptoms. The pills’ appearance and widespread distribution represented the first time women were recognized as having unique medical problems, a distinction that Gorbach terms “extremely important” in the evolution of women’s medical history. —Bruce Morgan