A Sherbet for Quarantine

Hop Bitters, a 19th-century ‘cure all’ medicine (‘the invalid’s friend and hope’) was incredibly popular in North America, Europe and Australia.

25 March 2020

By Chris Dodd

In another piece of The Dry Season Bottom-of-the-Barrel Series. Chris Dodd takes a tonic.

Asa T Soule was a dodgy patent medicine entrepreneur from Rochester, NY, who pioneered sponsorship of sport by promoting the world professional sculling championship, notable contestants being the Boy in Blue, Ned Hanlan of Canada, and the American Charles Courtney. Hanlan and Courtney were involved in possible fixed races – on one occasion Charles’s boat was ‘Courneyed’, that is sawn in half, on the night before their race, with thousands of dollars at stake.

Hop Bitters put up a $6,000 prize for an 1879 sculling match between the two greatest scullers of the time, Charles Courtney and Ned Hanlan. A railway company built a special spur line along the race route in order to run an observation train and a 50,000-person grandstand was constructed. However, when Courtney’s boat was sawn in half, he refused to use another and Hanlan rowed on his own. Understandably, Hop Bitters refuse to pay the prize money.

Soule himself was eventually discredited, but it is evident from this typical advertisement in the Newcastle Courant in 1882 that he and his Rochester Hop Bitters found the antidote to coronavirus before his time:

If you are suffering from poor health or languishing on a bed of sickness, take cheer, for Hop Bitters will cure you. If you are simply ailing, if you feel week and dispirited, without clearly knowing why, Hop Bitters will revive you. If you are a minister and have overtaxed yourself with your pastoral duties; or a mother, worn out with care and work, Hop Bitters will restore you. If you are a man of business or a labourer, weakened by the strain of your every day duties, or a man of letters, toiling over your midnight work, Hop Bitters will strengthen you. If you are suffering from overeating or drinking, any indiscretion or dissipation, or are young and growing too fast, as is often the case, Hop Bitters will relieve you. If you are in the workshop, on the farm, at the desk, anywhere, and feel that your system is overtaxed or needs cleansing, toning, or stimulating, without intoxicating, Hop Bitters is what you need. If you are old, and your blood thin, pulse feeble, your nerves unsteady, and your faculties waning, Hop Bitters will give you New Life and Vigour. For sale by all druggists and chemists.

A Hop Bitters poster displayed in Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1880. Picture: Billy Embleton/peachridgeglass.com


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