4 education
4 research
4 outreach
4 dialogue

B-Self Medication

Washington Underground: Archaeology in Downtown Washington, DC,
a walking and metro guide to the past...

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DC Archaeology Tour Contents

Locator Map
Archaeology in DC
Urban Archaeology
A-Rare Achievement
B-Self Medication
D-Crowded Housing
E-Pardon Our Dust
F-Safe Water
H-Path of History
I-2nd Hand Economy
J-Oldest Profession
Making Do
Other Sites
For More Information

B - Self-Medication

Location:  Old Civic Center at 9th and H Streets, NW (see MAP)
Metro: Metro Center Station (Red-Orange-Blue Lines)

(see additional informational links below)

The cholera epidemic that hit Washington in 1832 killed close to 500 people. Smallpox outbreaks in 1833, 1841, 1848, 1849, and 1850 added to deaths caused by the ever-present "consumption" (tuberculosis) and other illnesses.

How would you take care of your familyís health? You may have believed that many new medicines available were more effective than folk medicine and home remedies that you grew up with. Most proprietary medicines, such as "Dr. Hamiltonís Infallible Ague and Fever Drops," contained medicinal herbs and could include narcotics such as opium or cocaine suspended in alcohol. Physicians were bleeding patients and prescribing purgatives but also used alcohol and narcotics to make patients more comfortable.

Archaeologists tested several backyards before the completion of the old Civic Center in 1983. Like many others in the city, the family that rented at 919 I Street dumped some of their trash along the back edge of their yard.

Between about 1844 and 1857, bones from the kitchen and ash from the stove accumulated along with other household refuse. Among the refuse were over 70 apothecary bottles, well over half of the bottles identified by the archaeologists. Such evidence of self-medication is fairly common on sites from this period, but this is an unusually high concentration.

FUN FACT: Bottle glass is one of the most common artifacts found on archaeological sites, although intact bottles are relatively rare. See Site "I" for another look at bottles in downtown Washington.

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Washington Underground:
Archaeology in Downtown Washington, DC,
a walking and metro guide to the past...
was produced cooperatively by the National Park Service, National Center for Cultural Resources, Archeology and Ethnography Program; the District of Columbia Office of Planning, Historic Preservation Office; the Center for Heritage Resource Studies, University of Maryland, College Park; and the Society for American Archaeology.

Additional Links


Sickness and Death in the Old South
History of Smallpox

Apothecary Bottles

Apothecary Shop Excavations in Alexandria, Virginia (Alexandria Archaeology Museum)

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