Trash or Treasure: Collector hunts for unusual medical items
“I’ve always been interested in the history of medicine, including quack cures and real prescription medicines,” wrote retired dietitian and diabetes educator Yvonne Thigpen.
So it’s not surprising that the South Lyon resident began picking up bottles and books in the early 1990s. “My bottle collection includes poison bottles, herbal 'cures' and medications that contain what we now know are poisons – like the strychnine in the small bottle labeled Sargon (a laxative)” and my favorite bottle of 'medicated electricity.' I also have a collection of 19th-century medical books which provide an interesting and sometimes scary view of medicine before antibiotics, x-rays or safe surgery, not to mention the theories about the physiology of “the weaker sex,” she continued. With medical topics in the news and headlines, we caught up with Thigpen to find out more about her unusual collection and what appeals to her about it.
What do you collect and why?
I've always been interested in medical history, including herbal medicines, medicines developed by the physicians using the knowledge they had at the time and quack medicines. (The term "snake oil" comes from Clark Stanley who really did sell oil from boiled snakes--ugh). My first purchase was actually a 1792 edition of Culpepper's "Medicines of English Herbs", in 1992.
When did you start collecting?
I think I starting collecting the poison and medicine bottles shortly after that. I find most of them at flea markets and antique stores and also have a friend who scouts them out for me.
Do you have a favorite?
I think my favorite one is still the medicated electricity because it's such an odd concept. The old bottles that are from Detroit Pharmacies and still contain medication (like Lady's Slipper) are pretty cool. They are sealed and well out of reach of any children!
Most/least you ever paid?
Most of the bottles I have found are not expensive, anywhere from 2-$20. 18th-century bottles would cost more.
Where do you find them?
I don’t buy online just because I enjoy the experience of looking through various antiques shops/malls and flea markets,” she explains, adding “I enjoy hitting flea markets and antiquarian bookstores whenever we’re on vacation.
Where do you display them?
I display them on a shelf leading to our basement. Easily seen, but safe from elbows.
Which others are standouts?
My husband once bought me some 19th century trade cards advertising Hoyt’s German Perfume. It was exciting to find a Hoyt's perfume bottle and another one with Rubifoam for the teeth, also by Hoyt's.
Someday I'd like to find a bezoar. They are concretions formed in the stomach of certain goats that were said to have magical medicinal properties. I think they are mostly in museums though.
Do you collect anything else?
I also collect 19th-century medical books, coffee cups and saucers made in Germany between 1945-1947, beautiful mini shoe replicas from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and tacky pencils from our travels. They don't break, are easy to pack and don't clutter up the house!
Advice for other collectors?
If you’re interested, a very fun (?) book to read is “Quackery—A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything” by Kang and Pedersen.
Interested in seeing your collection in our pages? If so, send a paragraph about your collection and what appeals to you about it along with a few photos of you with items in your collection to email@example.com. If chosen, we will be in touch.