Olivia Larson- Hard Work and Self Medication on a Jim Crow Era Farm

When viewing an artifact for the first time, often it looks like nothing too special. However, after further investigation (and a lot of cleaning) something that once appeared insignificant can create an interesting story.  One such artifact is a small milk glass bottle, roughly 2 inches tall.  After being cleaned, it revealed the words, “Musterole 23 2 Cleveland” on the base of the jar.  Musterole was wrapped around the top and Cleveland around the bottom.  The 23 and 2 are stacked one on top of the other with 23 above the 2.  It is unclear what the 23 or 2 mean; however, it was common for bottle making manufacturers to identify plant locations using numbers.  If a bottle manufacturer produced several different bottle shapes, each unique shape would be given its own mold number. Given these two common practices among bottle manufacturers, it is possible that the “23” indicates the specific (currently unidentified) plant and the “2” indicates the specific mold in which the bottle was produced (Lindsey 2017).

This artifact was found approximately 20 feet away from a slave quarter duplex built in the 1840s that was later converted to tenant housing in the postbellum era. The building continued to be used as tenant housing into the 20th century.  The bottle was recovered from an early 20th century work yard fill. This particular bottle was most likely made sometime in the 1940s based on the bottle’s shape in comparison to other examples, period advertisements, and other artifacts found with the bottle.

Musterole Co. was created in Cleveland Ohio by a pharmacist named A.L. McLaren and a hardware store owner named George Miller 1907.  This Musterole bottle would have contained a white ointment that contained a combination of camphor, menthol, methyl salicylate and of course mustard oil.  It was used to treat colds, muscle aches, and chest congestion, similar to what we call Vicks today.  Previously, mustard plaster was used to treat illnesses and muscle pain, but it was thick, harsh, and was known for leaving blisters on the skin where it was applied.  Musterole was very popular up until 1970 when it was sold and relocated to Tennessee.  It continued to be sold by the Plough Corp. of Tennessee and Schering Pharmaceutical Co., but not under the name Musterole. Soon after, however, it faded out of popularity (Case Western Reserve University, 2017).

Around this time, on the plantation in which the bottle was found, the property was owned by John Lee Pratt.  His nephew, T. Benton Gayle, lived in the plantation’s big house and oversaw the conversion of the wheat farm to a dairy farm in the early 1930s.  Prior to living on the plantation, Gayle received his bachelor’s degree in agricultural science from Virginia Tech, and was also the Superintendent for Stafford and King George County schools. Gayle employed several people, some of whom lived on the property.  One notable employee was John Taylor, a young African American man who most likely resided in the Duplex (Saffos 2017).  Taylor was 25 at the time of the 1940 census, which listed his occupation as “house boy.”  His wife, Carrie, and young daughter, Jean, also resided with him.  This speaks a lot to how race played a part in agriculture and farming.

Prior to the construction of the dairy farm, the plantation workers were predominantly African American.  Because dairy farming used more equipment and technology than traditional farming, Gayle (and many other farm operators) believed the task seemed better suited for white men, while African-Americans were deemed unable to do such advanced work.  Thus, African-Americans were reduced to more menial tasks, such as “house boy.” This switch from black workers being the majority to white workers took place on this farm in the 1930s when the dairy farm became the main operation (Saffos 2017).

Home remedies, such as Musterole, have been around for many years. And although Musterole appeared to work very well, many people would pair the salve with other ingredients to give it an extra kick.  It was common among older African-American women to use garlic and cayenne pepper with the Musterole.  It was also common for this demographic to drink a wild cherry bark tea while also using the Musterole.  However, as time progressed, it became less common for complementary medicine to be used.  This may be due to the rise in education about medicine and better access to conventional medical care (Barnett et. al 2003).  Physicians also became better trained in the human anatomy, thus, able to treat illness more reliably and without the use of harmful substances.  Examples of Musterole’s use can be found in several other early 20th-century archaeological sites associated with African American communities (Hautaniemi et al. 1994; Barnett 2003; Baker 2013).

A prescription medicine bottle was also found near the Duplex.  Based on manufacturing marks, the bottle was made in 1942 (Saffos 2017).  This bottle was most likely used and thrown away by John Taylor or his wife and represents yet another shift that was happening on the plantation at the time. While ethnomedicine and home remedies continued to be widely accepted in the African American community up until the mid to late 20th century (Barnett et. al 2003), the presence of a pharmaceutical bottle that would have been prescribed by a medical doctor shows that new ideas were being accepted. Both traditional and new western medical cures, as represented by the Musterole and the prescription bottles, were used at the same time.

This jar was just a small glass jar when found, but after research and analysis it paints a picture about life in the first half of the 20th century.  We can start to learn about the treatment of African American workers at this time, as well as about manufacturing of medicines and how people used them. This one object also served as a starting point to look into the life of one specific person, John Taylor, and larger changes that took place on the farm.

Works Cited

Baker, Michael Jr.
2013    Archaeological Survey of the Lower Hill Redevelopment Project, City of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. Report to Sports and Exhibition Authority of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County. http://www.civicarenaredevelopment.com/admin/uploads/lower-hill-phase-i-ii-archaeology-report-june-2013.pdf

Barnett, Marina C, Margaret Cotroneo, Joseph Purnell, Danielle Martin, Elizabeth Mackenzie, and Alfred Fishman
2003    Use of CAM in Local African-American Communities: Community-Partnered Research. Journal of the National Medical Association 95(10):943-950.

Case Western Reserve University
2017    Musterole Co. Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. https://case.edu/ech/articles/m/musterole-co/.

Hautaniemi, Susan
1994    Recognizing Gender in Historical and Archaeological Contexts. Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archaeological Society 55(1):1-7.

Lindsey, Bill
2017    Historic Glass Bottle Identification & Information Website- Bottle Bases Page, Online. Society for Historical Archaeology and Bureau of Land Management. https://sha.org/bottle/bases.htm

Saffos, Kara
2017    Postbellum Workers at Sherwood Forest. Manuscript on file, Department of Historic Preservation, University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, VA.


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