Rhizoma rhei druggist bottle from the late 1800s

Rhizoma rhei, druggist bottle

The Medicine

Rhubarb root

As per the World Health Organization’s Monographs on Selected Medicinal Plants, Rhizoma rhei, also known as rhubarb root, or Chinese rhubarb, consists of the rhizome and roots of plants from the genus Rheum.  It is similar to the common garden variety rhubarb, but has lower growth.  The plant material is dried and ground to a yellowish-orange or brown powder for medicinal use.  It is primarily used to treat constipation, and is believed to work by stimulating the colon, reducing fluid absorption, and increasing the cell permeability across the mucosa in the colon.  It also has folklore uses as a treatment for low blood pressure, to prevent blood clotting, and even to treat stomach tumors.


The Bottle

Whitall Tatum logoIt’s hard to see in the pictures, but the logo on the bottom of the bottle is “W.T. & Co. A”.  From the Society for Historical Archaeology’s website, I located a paper from 2006 which details the Whitall Tatum & Company’s history as bottle manufacturers.  Dating back to the early 1800’s, the Whitall’s originally produced window glass.  They formed a partnership with Tatum in 1857 which remained until they were bought out in 1938.  According to the document, the Whitall and Tatum families were Quaker, and unlike most glass manufacturers in that times, they refused to manufacture liquor bottles due to their religious beliefs.  This is what led them to producing druggist and chemist bottles instead.  Table 1 of the paper gives a chronology for dating Whitall & Tatum Company prescription bottles.  As per this chart, my bottle dates somewhere between 1880 and 1895. 

And with medicine still in it!  Rhizoma rhei

The bottle is full of dark yellow or brownish colored bricks.  Looking in from just the right angle, you can see that some of the blocks even have numbers printed into them.  I am guessing the jar is air tight and I would love to get a closer look, but I don’t dare open it.  I guess rhubarb root is a pretty hardy substance.  The National Museum of American History appears to have some in a jar on display in their China trade exhibit dated around 1880.