Today for your edification: A toothache remedy, purchased from the Kensington Pharmacy.

DSC04286This small (three inches tall) cardboard box originally contained a vial of Alpar Ache Drops – essentially a bottle of chloroform.  The box promises that the drops will “Relieve the Ache and Quiet the Pain” of toothache and neuralgia, and they will be “prompt and effective, reliable and safe.” All for only 25 cents!


Happily for us, the dispensing pharmacist slapped a label on the box, letting us know that it was purchased from J.A.I. Parker at the Kensington Pharmacy.  James Allen Ireland Parker (1905-1964) was born in Frostburg, Md., attended pharmacy school at the University of Maryland, and spent some years in Baltimore (as a pharmacist) and Riverdale, Prince George’s County (as the manager of the men’s department at Sears) before moving to Kensington in 1944. He and his wife Miriam took over the old Trowbridge Drug Store, and in 1949 they moved to a storefront on W. University Avenue, where the Kensington Pharmacy is still located.  The medicine was purchased, and later donated to MCHS, by Elizabeth Buck of Kensington.

Home remedies and patent medicines for toothache abounded in the days before over-the-counter extra-strength painkillers and modern dentistry.  For example, The New Family Book, or Ladies’ Indispensable Household Companion and Housekeepers’ Guide (1854) includes three toothache remedies: “Equal proportions of Cajeput Oil and Olive Oil;” “Make an extract from white poplar bark; mix with it a little rum;” or “Mix alum and salt together; or powdered alum and spirits of ether.”  If that sounds like too much household compounding for you, you could buy a patent medicine like Dr. Carey’s G.E.S.S., from the 1890s, which – probably due to a high alcohol content – “cured” toothache, as well as sore throats, coughs, colds, sprains, lameness, and (added bonus!) “bellyache, colic, bots &c. in horses.” (Click the photo to enjoy the full text in a readable size.)


Based on a few pharmacist guides – here’s one from 1893, and another from 1915 – the ‘official’ remedies were not very different. Chloroform was a common ingredient in drops and tinctures, but was far from the only option; others included camphor, oil of cinnamon, oil of cloves, oil of lavender, oil of peppermint, ether, alcohol, opium, etc.

The directions for use in most or all cases involve soaking the medicine on a bit of cotton, and applying it to the suffering tooth.  Today we might pop a few painkillers rather than putting something directly on the cavity, but all these remedies, old and modern, have one thing in common: they might kill the pain, but they’re not fixing the underlying problem. For that, you have to actually go to the dentist. And we’ll save that trip for a future post.