How To Decorate with Days of Yore Drugs/Diseases ????

Well, that title sounds crazy, right? Why would anyone want THAT sort of thing decorating their home?

But many of you will know about the 3-year run of the Carlisle Country Craft and Old-fashioned Market Mercantile that I organized and ran each August, in Ontario.  One of the top-stops for our visitors was the Apothecary display I did, using old (and in some cases, new) bottles with labels I printed off from the internet and mod-podged on, then filled with coloured water  This is part of the overall display behind an old window so the public couldn’t ‘play’ with the many items and using, as well as the bottles, some pottery jugs and tiny tins and a cupboard system made by my Great Aunt Jessie on which I painted some herb names:


The bottles above don’t have the labels attached, yet – you’ll see how those look shortly, and how easy to do them…  But if you want an old-fashioned country kitchen or bathroom for no cost at all, one of the simplest ways is to hang your own herbs and dried flowers, immediately adding a cozy ‘Cadfael’ cottage kind of feel.

I have mine hanging from a wooden rack and the only beam in the kitchen.  Some of them are just decorative at the moment, but some, like the dill and the lavender, I use weekly.  I will be doing a post on how to make tinctures, and spices from these dried stems in a few weeks.  The next step for decorating both kitchen and bathrooms (and in a few cases, bedrooms, for a romantic feel!) is to do the bottles.  Being the grand-daughter of two men who were both collectors (one grandfather collected snuff boxes, cigarette cases and calling card cases, the other collected more primitive vessels like moonshine jugs, urns, and glass bottles) I have chosen some of the most interesting vignettes around Blue Belldon’s farmhouse to show here.

To the left, the hand-embroidered  ‘sampler’  is from my friend Anne.  It says, in tongue-in-cheek manner- “PLEASE Fuck Off”  When I need to, I hold it up to Richard’s face so he realizes I might be at my breaking point, stress-wise – usually when the cat is throwing up, the dog is whining, the bread is burning, and the husband WANTS something he can’t find, all at the same instance.   It’s a durn-handy tool! Thanks, Anne! 

Because, in true country fashion, I took off some kitchen doors and had them as open shelves (left, above)  and for the others, I personally (and yes, wonkily!) cut out the old cupboard doors for glass to be fitted, it is important to me that I have an interesting assortment of ‘displays’ to put BEHIND the glass! Never mind that crowds of people (or even 1 !) are not going through my kitchen weekly to view these displays, I ENJOY LOOKING AT THEM MYSELF!  So all the various bottles and vessels I put together for the big apothecary display at the shows are now divided up all over the kitchen – I gave a  little preview of this last week when I discussed my 9 days in bed, and how I kept passing the big pine hutch and looking at some of those vignettes of Days of Yore, designed to make folk feel better, in what today, is a completely unhealthy and illegal way!  Note: if you missed the whole kitchen make-over, with lots of before and afters, and some how-tos on paint techniques to make things look older than the icky 1970s, see the post here:

Brain Salt, Soda Pop and Pop-Corn!

Behind that particular glass, you’ll see the above, with jars from Christine Aiken (a Hamilton, ON artist who creates natural beauty with her Stones of Time). Her late husband Dave was also a collector of bottles and jars, and she kindly gave some to me before we moved to N.B.  I love the rusty tops, most especially!  I put the two labels on, from some I ran off ( again, the how-to is later).  Now, lets talk for a minute about the Days of Yore’s solution to what the brain needed – ie: stimulants. ie: Caffeine and COCAINE.

Of course, most people know that Cocoa-cola got its name because it was full of just that – caffeine from the cocoa plant and cocaine!  Here’s a delightful ad for the beverage, circa 1890:


Well, I don’t think it’s any wonder that it ‘relieves physical and mental exhaustion’!  Any stimulant is ‘great for the brain’ – for a few hours, at least.  And a few of those, and you’re addicted and needed another one anyway!  Coca-Cola contained an estimated 9 milligrams of cocaine per glass. After 1904, the company started using leftovers of the cocaine-extraction process, instead of fresh leaves.  It was generally advertised as “A valuable brain tonic, and a cure for all nervous affections — sick head-ache, neuralgia, hysteria, melancholy.”


Of course, one of the most common cures was to give it to children for toothache – they even gave it to teething babies!  And because the pharmaceutical companies didn’t understand the potency of cocaine, or the addictive qualities, the would proudly advertise their use of it!  Cocaine toothache drops (c. 1885) were popular for children.
Not only would the medicine numb the pain, but it could also put the user in a “better” mood. Sadly, many younger children died from this addiction, often with other conditions being misdiagnosed as the culprit.


The above ad is one of the most hilarious (and sad) of any I’ve seen. Essentially, if you have an alcoholic in the house, cure him/her by getting them addicted to cocaine instead!  “If any drunkard drinks copius amounts of this cocaine syrup (the ‘weak grapes’ it’s mixed with, being of course WINE), THEY WILL ALMOST INSTANTLY LOSE THEIR NEED AND WANT OF ALCOHOL AND WILL GAIN A NEW WANT FOR LIFE AND FUN”.   hmmm – well, for a while, anyway!  In 1865 Vin Mariani  was the leading Coca Wine of its time.
Pope Leo XIII purportedly carried a hip-flask of it with him, and awarded a Vatican gold medal to its creator, Angelo Mariani. And of course, Arthur Conan Doyle famously made his great detective addicted to the stuff, one of the reasons why his behaviour was often so erratic (yet possibly why he could think so very clearly at times?)

And, in one of the first instances of artists using drugs to enhance their performance (albeit unknowingly in most instances), cocaine-containing throat lozenges  were “indispensable for singers, teachers, and orators.” In addition to quieting a sore throat, these lozenges provided the “pick-me-up” to keep these professionals performing at their peak.

Here’s a couple of the labels I applied to old bottles.  Take too much cocaine, and you’re definitely going to need the other two pictured here!


Opium, was of course one of the primary and most popular of the ‘natural’ drugs from as far back as the 1400s up to the early 1900s.  From the poppy-seed pod, such famous people as Florence Nightingale, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, Mary and Percy Shelley and no doubt their pal, Lord Byron, Ben Franklin, and John Keats are just a few of the imaginative minds who used the ‘medicine’. Paregoric and Laudanum (mixtures of opium and alcohol) were distributed much like the spices. Doses for infants, children, and adults are given on the bottles. It was freely prescribed by doctors and even available at grocery stores. Chinese laborers had brought the practice of opium smoking to the West during the mid-nineteenth century and opium was often given to women to treat menstrual cramps . “Smoking” opium  was done without benefit of the infamous opium dens and their paraphernalia.  It could simply be put in a pan and heated by a small kerosene lamp!

Here are two of the most humourous ads for opium:


Elixir of Opium became extremely popular in the United States once the A. B. & D. Sands drug company bought the recipe in 1841 and proudly pro-claimed that it was “non-habit forming.” McMunn’s Elixir of Opium was touted as a cure for “convulsions and spasmodic action,” as well as “pain and irritation, nervous excitement and morbid irritability of body and mind.” Morbid irritability? Just put me to SLEEP!  So many women who suffered from severe PMS (and who were once burned as witches due to their mood swings) were offered this as a ‘cure’.  It really just meant their hubbies could continue on with their fun while their poor wives were dead to the world.

And speaking of dead – it was also prescribed to children, like the cocaine was—“To a child a month old, or younger, give from half a drop to two drops; to a child 6 months old, from 3 to 10 drops…”—This naturally led to a rash of infant deaths. An infamous case from New York in 1875 described a young child who had worms being dosed with “15-20 drops every hour” in an effort to “cause the worms which were supposed to be in the child’s stomach, to have a good sleep.” Instead, as a local newspaper reported, “The little fellow was at play in the morning as ever and at 11 at night was a corpse.”

Here’s my collection of bottles with labels that had some form of opium.

The golf ball is a real cure, too – if your feet, ankles or knees are a problem, step on it hard and roll it around for a bit of drug-free shiatsu!

Mixed in among my own spices and dried herbs in my pigeon holes are the cannabis-based bottles. While morphine, heroin, chlorodyne, and a mixture of them called “Commotion Lotion”  were also popularly-prescribed drugs in our ancestors’ time, good old cannabis has always been one of the least harmful:


For decorating and display purposes, if not using a coloured water for a liquid, I would just colour baby powder or flour like in the corked bottles above.

I especially enjoy, for purposes of decorating and cheering myself up (esp. if that darned red geranium in my kitchen window isn’t in bloom!) putting a little bit of colour in the kitchen or bathroom window sills, either with empty coloured bottles,  or some lovely dried flower or herb stems in oils, that I make up myself:

See again how various forms of ‘medicine’ (really nothing more than high-proof alcohol) suggest OVERDOSING on the stuff, for full benefits! Yup, 4 small wineglasses of any alcohol 4 times a day will make the average person feel better able to ‘get on’ with life! (Me, I just use my embroidered sampler from Anne!)

Other vessel collections also add to the grace and authenticity of any country home.  Use the trendy ‘bowl-fillers’ to put in baskets or old bowls ( bathroom basket with twig handle hand-made by Rustic Revivals, with tobacco slats compliments of my cousins Pete and Linda Baxter, and available on etsy) :


Other vessels and filler ideas include: (click to enlarge and read caption if you wish ideas)

And other vessels that can be collected cheaply (now-a-days, those crocks USED to be worth a small fortune!) and used to decorate your country home, reminiscent of the days they were used for yet more “medicinal remedies”! ( Click on each circle to enlarge and to read caption if you wish more ideas for country decorating that costs nothing! )

Now, for those that really like the idea of putting a replicated apothecary on display somewhere in their house (you don’t need pigeon holes or multiple tiny drawers or shelves, although those are great for this purpose – you just need a window-sill or dark shelf you want to brighten!)  READ ON:


Once you have a collection of various size bottles, clean them up as best you can. I’ve had to leave some corks inside, and then use other corks (saved from wine-drinkers in the family) and whittle down one end so they fit!  Other ideas for bottles which work equally well are just sets of spice bottles, or even those at the dollar store (although I don’t buy from dollar stores directly, – (China and India don’t need a penny more from us)-  I AM often given this kind, as people know I will thus recycle them!)  Then go online and find any of the copius amount of old labels/ads found there.  I colour-copied them, even the black and white ones, to give them a proper authentic look, and not just a photo-copied appearance.

Decide which bottle you’d like for which label and cut the labels to fit.  BEFORE mod-podging/gluing into place, though, partly fill them with coloured water or coloured powders/flours, of a shade likely to be indicative of what the label says (ie: cough syrups were usually a nasty dark brown or cherry-red).  You can either use commercial food colourings, or if you try hard like me to all-natural, use dyes made from berries/beets, etc. (if the latter is the case, you may have to empty and do again every year or two). Coloured dish soap can work well also, if you can afford it!



Once the label is affixed by regular glue (small amount so it doesn’t wrinkle!) go ahead and mod-podge over it.  You can of course use your own homemade mod-podge:   but I did try it once and it didn’t make it as water-proof/washable over the labels as I’d have liked.

If you prefer not to have straight edges on your labels, you could rip them to age them. Other ways of distressing or to burn or tea-stain the edges (if you used thick copy-paper, I don’t advise if you used thinner) OR my new personal preference the last few years is to use a brown ink pad, take the paper and ‘stain’ it here and there and along edges, but pressing into the ink. I now do this with my Rustic Revivals tags to age them and it works a treat!   I’ll be doing a whole blog posting later on how to use paints, inks, tea and coffee to distress paper, natural fabrics and edges of wood. Watch for it! Edge of the seat stuff here!