A term that has slipped into America’s past is “bitters”. Before the Pure and Drug Law of 1906, bitters were sold as a medicinal product. The “snake oil” that was peddled throughout the country was nothing more than bitters. The more legitimate producers of the product had very ornate bottles that are highly collectible today. The only definitive work on the bottles was written in 1965 by Richard Watson. The bottle pictured above is from F. Chevalier & Co. in San Francisco. It states on the bottle that it contained “Celebrated/Crown Bitters”. It is 8 ¾ inches high and 2 ¾ inches square. It is a dark brown amber color and very well-made. I found this in Richard Watson’s book, told him and he found the bottle for me.
The truth about bitters was it was a substitute for whiskey. Being between 30 and 40% alcohol and figuring in the laxative they usually put in it, the warm glow it gave one, many found it to be a convenient way to imbibe and clean out their system at the same time. Since many of the maladies of the day could be fixed with a good “flushing out”, bitters was a good way to do most of what they wanted.
Temperance movements were everywhere in the 19th Century, so bitters was a good and acceptable alternative to saloon whiskey. If a person went into a saloon, he was deemed to be a drunk. The imbibing in bitters was thought to be medicinal and everyone just looked the other way.
Manufacturers began to make the bottles in amber, green, blue and clear with shades of each color. They made them in many ornate designs and thus exacerbated the collection of the bottles themselves,
The Internal Revenue Act of 1862 which heavily taxed alcoholic beverages gave added emphasis to the bitters boom. Something that was considered medicinal did not fall into the same category as whiskey. Can’t you just imagine Uncle Charley having a drink of bitters for what ailed him? With the alcohol content between 30 and 40 %, it was sure to make him feel better temporarily and the laxative contained in the bitters usually gave him a good “flushing out”. Due to the shortage of legitimate doctors, bitters seemed a good way to cure many ills. It was also a good way to obtain a respectable buzz.
It just goes to prove the idea that no matter how many laws they pass, there are people coming up with ideas for how to get past them.