Wednesday, August 15, 2012


We recently came across an old pharmacy prescription bottle (and we mean OLD!) for Tincture of Digitalis. Inside were little brown pellets, not unlike, ahem, tiny mouse droppings.

The bottle was stamped Owens on the bottom, which had been making prescription bottles since at least the early 1900s.
British bottle
DIGITALIS? Wasn't that a lethal, plant-based poison known to be used to plan Victorian murders in old novels? 

The British bottle on the right reads:  To be taken twice or thrice daily, with a little water after food. To be taken with great Caution ( with a capital "C"!) 

Apparently there were many kinds of digitalis tinctures available at the time, which were used to control both the heart rate and sometimes epilepsy, and  was discussed in a late 1700's English medical journal.

Drawing of a digitalis plant
Digitalis is a drug extracted from the foxglove plant, often used by herbalists. It is said that Native Americans brewed the dried leaves to treat leg swelling and that as early as the 1400's, it was often used to cleanse wounds.

An interesting fact is that this scientific name means "finger-like", perhaps because each of these little tubular innocent flowers can fit over a human fingertip.

foxglove flowers
Alas, the often dangerous side-effects led to calling this plant by other names, such as "dead man’s bells" and "witch's gloves".

The entire plant, including the root and the seeds is toxic: some side effects can be delirium and hallucinations, such as seeing halos around objects. Children have even been known to die drinking the water from a digitalis floral plant in a vase.

In researching this apparently dangerous drug, we came across some quirky digitalis labels: for instance, just in case you wanted to be poisoned but were dieting at the time, you have this label, FAT-FREE Digitalis!!

More recently, very low doses of digoxin, the active ingredient derived from digitalis, have been re-purposed to treat high blood pressure patients...(just tellin' ya!)..

..but here, on the label,  is a recipe for the antidote: "Strong coffee without milk or sugar, after which, to produce vomiting, mustard mixed in warm water, or grease in warm water: stimulants when necessary; keep body in reclining position"

As an aside, the address printed on our bottle's label is 1800 West 11th Street, Los Angeles California and the two phone numbers printed on the side read  "Federal 6050" and "Drexel 9578."  

....when was the last time you saw  a 4-digit phone number? After doing a bit of research we learned that it was only after World War II that DRexel, FEderal and several other exchanges were changed to DUnkirk followed by a five-digit number.

..and here is another interesting old druggist bottle. Who knew?