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.

About cartarchaeology

We are the County Archaeological Research Team, part of the Archaeology and Collections Branch, Resource Management Division, Fairfax County Park Authority. We are tasked with understanding and managing the cultural resources on Park land throughout Fairfax County.
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