Vapo-Cresolene: A Magical Respiratory Remedy? Well, maybe not so much.

Vapo-Cresolene Bottle

by Erica D’Elia – Assistant Lab Director

While working at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park this summer the archaeology team unearthed fragments of a small bottle embossed with rows of raised “hobnails” and lettering. Once we got the bottle back to the lab and cleaned up we were able to identify some of the words “PAT.D. U.S. JUL. 17 94” “NE” “C” “SO” and “APO”. Like most objects found archaeologically, we only had a few fragments of the bottle, but that proved to be enough to positively identify it. Using the magic of the internet I popped a few terms into the search bar, namely “medicine bottle, hobnails, pat Jul 17 94”. To my immense surprise the first page of results displayed an image of my bottle!

It turns out that the fragments we had found were the remains of a Vapo-Cresolene bottle, a proprietary medicine sold from the late 19th to mid-20th century. This was a fairly popular product and is a relatively common find. Proprietary, commonly referred to as patent (though most were never officially patented), medicines were very popular at the time. There were numerous products on the market sold to remedy any number of common ailments and more serious diseases (SHA).

Vapo-Cresolene was composed of a by-product of coal-tar processing: cresol (Munsey, 2010; Propaganda for Reform, 1908). Remedies such as this took advantage of the waste materials from industrialization and turned them into a product which was then quite effectively marketed to the public for profit with no accountability for quality and without evidence to support medicinal claims. Vapo-Cresolene was marketed as a cure-all for a large number of respiratory ailments including whooping cough, pneumonia, asthma, and diphtheria among others. It was intended to be inhaled as a vapor and the black liquid was heated over a flame using a small “lamp”. Consumers were directed to use the product at night in a closed up bedroom. The company claimed that the vapor was not harmful even to young children, though the product was considered poisonous if ingested (Munsey, 2010).  In fact, the hobnails on the bottle’s exterior were a well-known symbol at the time used to denote poisonous contents. Other popular indicators include bright colors, unusual shapes, or the embossing of the word “poison” (SHA).

Proprietary medicines were not cheap; some cost as much as the daily wage for laborers, thus the entrepreneurs stood to gain a considerable profit. The popularity of these products, especially relative to cost, attests to their perceived value to consumers. Still, the high price of the medicine was less than the cost of visiting a doctor (Cook 2014).

The use of these medicines appears to have cut across all socio-economic classes. It is true that the wealthy had more access to physicians than those of lower status, however, proprietary medicines were used by people of all social standing (Cook 2014). In addition to cost, skepticism of medicine and doctors was also a reason for people to diagnose and treat themselves rather than seek professional care (Cook 2014). Medical knowledge and procedures at the time could also be dangerous and ineffective. It is no wonder that people were skeptical and instead turned to drugstore remedies which promised miracle cures (Cook 2014).

Vapo-Cresolene was not alone in its dubious claims. Most of these medicines did not actually cure the diseases for which they were marketed. Many did contain narcotics or alcohol so they tended to be effective at relieving symptoms, which made consumers happy and ensured continued use (Cook 2014). That said, some products, like Vapo-Cresolene, actually aggravated symptoms or caused cases of poisoning (Cook 2014).

There were some critiques made of proprietary medicines and eventually legislation was passed regulating their contents and ability to make medical claims. In 1908, Vapo-Cresolene was reviewed by the American Medical Association which concluded that it was “a member of that class of properties in which an ordinary product is endowed with extraordinary virtues.” (Munsey, 2010; Propaganda for Reform, 1908). The product was worthless, if not dangerous.

The early 20th century saw an increasing level of government oversight and regulation of food and drug products. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 required manufacturers to disclose contents which were known to be harmful. In 1938, the Wheeler-Lea Act required that manufacturers explain the risks associated with use of a product and the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act provided regulations for patent medicines as well as requirements to ensure their safety (Cook 2014).

Over the past century there has indeed been stricter government regulation and products must meet certain criteria backed by scientific research in order to make health claims about specific nutrients or mention specific diseases (Whitney and Rolfes, 2016), but one need only look at the plethora of miracle weight loss products and foods advertised as “promotes a healthy heart” or the like to see that American consumers are still persuaded by similar marketing strategies to buy products for good health and healing.


Cook, David L. “Medicinal Vessels of the First Gilded Age (1870-1929): Properties of Promise of Hokum of False Hope?” Thesis, Georgia State University, 2014.

Kentucky Historical Society. 2016.

“Medicinal/Chemical/Druggist Bottles.” Historic Bottle Identification. Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA).

Munsey, Cecil. 2010. Vapo-Cresolene (1881-1950): One of the Many Medically-Worthless Turn-of-the-Twentieth-Century Proprietary Antiseptics.

“Vapo-Cresolene: Result of Examination in the Association’s Laboratory. Journal of the American Medical Association, April 4, 1908.” In The Propaganda for Reform in Proprietary Medicine. vol 2. Pg. 231-233. 1908.

Vapo-Cresolene Vaporizer. 2016. Wood Library Museum of Anesthesiology.

Whitney, Ellie and Sharon Rady Rolfes. 2016. Understanding Nutrition. 14th ed. Stamford, Connecticut: Cengage Learning.

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Biweekly Update – 06 August 2016


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A Virginia Timeline – Part III: Civil War to the New Dominion

Minie Ball, musket bullet

Minie Ball, musket bullet

by Elizabeth PaynterCART Lab Director

Archaeology is the study of past human activity through the analysis of material culture. What exactly does “past” indicate? Typically, physical evidence of the human past that is 50 + to 75 + years can be deemed archaeological. Having said that, archaeologists’ interest tend to wane on anything less than 100 years old. Since everything will eventually become archaeological, active interest or not, having a handle on more recent history allows archaeologists to fully investigate an area.

As we have done in the previous blog posts, “A Virginia Time – Part I” and “Part II”, this timeline follows the periods set forth by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Being over the 100 year mark, both the Civil War and Reconstruction garner a lot of interest while the World Wars and newer are just beginning to grab attention.

Civil War 1861 – 1865 The Civil War is an often discussed period in U.S. history. It is difficult to miss evidence of the Civil War in Virginia since much of the war was fought on Virginia soil. Civil War battlefields, encampments, fortifications, earthworks, graffiti, cemeteries, roads and trails dot Virginia’s landscape. Fairfax County has many of these sites from battlefields to recently discovered corduroy roads which were constructed with sand covered logs placed perpendicular to the direction of the road. There are also many distinctive and common artifacts of the war including items such as military buttons and the Minié Ball, a muzzle loaded rifle bullet. Many sites have been altered or destroyed by those who seek to collect such individual items but do not know how to test, excavate or record the actual site.

plan map color

Detail Drawing of Corduroy Road Discovered in Fairfax County

Reconstruction and Growth 1866 – 1916 The Civil War left Virginia and much of the south financially devastated with a need to rebuild. During the Reconstruction, “cities struggled to emerge from the ruins of the Confederacy. The late nineteenth century in particular became a time of enormous growth as Virginians found new wealth in” resources such as coal, wood and tobacco. Freedmen only benefited from Reconstruction briefly before facing institutionalized racism. African Americans established many independent institutions. Unfortunately, the lack of equal access resulted in a lower degree of economic and political advancement. [1]

World War I to World War II 1917 – 1945 Many archaeologists are starting to pay attention to WWI, the great depression and WWII as it effects the material remains within the United States. During this time, much of country moved to urban and industrialized centers. Machined bottles, cars, and other factory items increased in popularity. The public work programs of the depression “improved highways and constructed public building, bridges and parks though-out the state.” [1]

The New Dominion 1946 to Present While the New Dominion can be archaeologically significant, few are cataloging the material from this period yet; however, some sites are being noticed and an attempt to record as well as preserve them is being made. In Fairfax, the growth of Washington DC has affected the county with plenty of housing, services, government contracted businesses and military resources and facilities. Some Nike sites of the Cold War are among the sites being noted for their historical import. Nike, named after the Greek Goddess of Victory, was the first surface-to-air missile defensive system developed. [2]


[1] Virginia  Department of Historic Resources 2011 Guidelines for Conducting Historic Resources Survey In Virginia. The Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Richmond, Virginia.

[2] Beauchamp, Tanya Edwards 2006 Prize-Winning Heifer Ramey Meets Dr. Strangelove: The Impact of the Cold War on a Virginia Farming Community – Part I. Chronicler. Volume 26, Issue 6. Great Falls Historical Society. Great Falls, Virginia.

Other Links: DHR – New Dominion period architecture:


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International Day of Archaeology

It’s that time of year again: International Day of Archaeology! Archaeologists from all over the world will be posting and sharing their work here. CART will be posting throughout the day. There are already a number of fascinating articles up so be sure to check those out!


Check out our CART Day of Archaeology Posts here!



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Amazing Field Opportunity!!!

Lost Towns Project of Anne Arundel County, Maryland The Lost Towns Project of Anne Arundel County, Maryland will be conducting another field session at River Farm (August 17 – August 20, 2016).  The focus of the investigation is an incredible Native American Woodland period site.  For more information, click on the logo below.  Hope some of you can make it out to help in the field!


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Biweekly Update 22 July 2016


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Phase I Archaeological Survey

by Erica D’EliaAssistant Lab Director

If you have been following our biweekly updates you already know that the CART team is hard at work surveying a new site. But you might not be familiar with what this entails. This work is being conducted consistent with Fairfax County Park Policies 103 and 203 and in accordance with Virginia Department of Historic Resources (VDHR) guidelines which designates different phases of archaeological work and objectives for each. We are currently performing a Phase I Survey with the goals of identifying any historic or prehistoric sites located on the park, defining the boundaries of any sites discovered, and assessing the need for Phase II work. Phase II involves determining the significance of the resource.  Archaeological sites can be considered significant under either National Register of Historic Places criteria developed by the National Park Service or under local criteria developed by Fairfax County. It is always preferable to avoid disturbing a locally or nationally significant site. However, if avoidance is not prudent or feasible, a Phase III entails the development of a treatment plan in consultation with VDHR.

In order to identify sites within the park’s boundaries we use a systematic survey of the property. Typically, this takes the form of shovel test pits (STPs) dug at regular intervals along a grid. So let’s pretend that this square outline is our park.

neIn the field, our first task was to establish a baseline in the form of Cartesian grid from which to conduct our work. In order to keep track of where we are on our grid we use a system of coordinates called Northing and Easting. In this example the point furthest southwest is our datum (the red dot on the image below) or the point from which we measure all other points on the site (and now you know how the Archaeological Society of VirginiaNorthern Virginia Chapter’s monthly publication, the Datum Point, got its name!) Its coordinates are North 0/East 0 (N0/E0). Using a surveyor’s total station from the datum we shot in a line of points (black dots) 15 meters apart running West-East. This is our baseline (blue line).stpongrid

To get a sense of our grid imagine lines running North-South and East-West every 15 meters. These are called transects, represented by dashed lines in the image below.


Now, the real fun begins. We work in teams of two and move North along each point digging a small hole every fifteen meters. Eventually we’ll dig holes across the entire site. As you move North the Northing increases, likewise, as you move East the Easting increases. In the image below each dot represents an STP. The STP represented by the green dot is located at N60/E45 and the purple dot is N30/E90. Can you figure out the coordinates for the yellow dot?


Of course these maps are pretty ideal. In the real world parks aren’t perfect squares and their boundaries do not align along cardinal directions, Plus, we’re in the woods, so we have all sorts of fun tree, vine, and thorn obstacles. Not to mention the ticks, mosquitoes, and poison ivy. We use a compass and measuring tape or pace out how many steps we take in 15 meters to make sure we are moving in the correct direction the correct distance.

Digging an STP is relatively simple. We’ll mark a piece of flagging tape with the coordinates and tie it to a nearby tree. Then, we’ll clear the ground surface. We’ll take note of any interesting natural or cultural features nearby such as trash scatters or creeks. Using a shovel we’ll create a circular outline where we’ll dig our hole, typically about 40 cm in diameter. As we dig the hole we’ll pay careful attention to any changes in soil color, texture, and composition as that indicates different natural or cultural processes that occurred over time. Once we’ve excavated no less than 10 cm into subsoil (unless we hit an obstruction or it fills with water) we’ll know we are finished. All of the soil is screened through ¼” mesh so that we can recover any artifacts. We might find historic period artifacts such as glassware, nails, and ceramics or we might find prehistoric flakes and stone tools. Although finding artifacts is always exciting, the truth is most of our STPs are negative, meaning no artifacts were found.


Recordation is extremely important to all stages of archaeology. We take notes about every STP we dig. We record things like the depth of each layer, any artifacts found, and use Munsell books to describe the soil. When we’re finished we fill the hole back in and move to the next location to repeat the process.

As we continue the survey we will start to note certain patterns; areas where we found artifacts and areas where we did not. This helps us to determine the locations of archaeological sites and make plans for additional work in those areas. In the map below pink dots represent prehistoric artifacts and the yellow dots represent historic artifacts. The circles correspond with artifact clusters defining potential sites. If any of these sites exhibit potential research value, it is on to Phase II…


(Answer: The yellow dot is located at N120/E120)


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