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Ray von Wandruszka in the lab working with a student

Uncorking The Past

By Amanda Cairo

Combining social science and physical science, University of Idaho students are delving into the rare world of analyzing contents of late 19th and early 20th century bottles found at an archaeology excavation in Sandpoint, Idaho.

Mark Warner, associate professor of anthropology and co-leader of the Sandpoint project, says in the last 20 years, he has never recovered bottles with their contents still intact. At Sandpoint, they found 20-30 bottles.

“To find this many bottles with their contents still in them is very rare,” says Warner, adding the fairly wet soil helped preserve the bottles. “I knew we had to partner up with the chemistry department and find out what was in them.”

Warner teamed up with Ray von Wandruszka, professor of chemistry, to analyze the contents, which may not be in the same condition they where 100 years ago with water and dirt seeping in and chemical breakdown. Under von Wandruszka’s supervision, Michael Spinner, a senior chemistry major from Pocatello, Idaho, and Adeline Lustig, a senior anthropology major from Cottonwood, Idaho, are combining their interests to open a window into the past.

“It was really interesting to use chemistry in a way I’d never thought about,” says Spinner. “It not only strengthened my knowledge of science, but I learned some unique information about what life was like over a 100 yeas ago.”

Using different methods of analysis — including infrared spectroscopy, freeze-drying, gas chromatography, flame tests and fluorescence measurements — Spinner and Lustig were able to confirm or deduce the contents and hypothesize the solutions’ original use.

“I found working with the various instruments to identify the bottle contents was very interesting and fun,” says Lustig. “But once a possible identification had been made, learning about the various products used and how most of them were quite harmful made the project. The advertisements for the products were entertaining with their claims.”

Some bottles were labeled or recognizable, and through Internet investigation and chemical analysis, Lustig and Spinner were able to confirm the specific solution. But several of the bottles were a mystery, like the one embossed with the words: “Sandpoint Drug Co. Ltd.; Prescription Druggists; Sandpoint, Idaho.”

Testing indicted the local tonic was a wood tar solution, which testing proved to be a close match to oak, but not pine. They noted the even better match was bamboo. Whether the tar was brought in through the Chinese community in Sandpoint is open to speculation. A web search revealed this material was used both internally for bronchitis and externally for eczema and psoriasis.

While some of the tonics and creams may have worked, a face cream with a mercury compound in it, which would have broken down under light on the wearer’s face, was potentially dangerous. A tooth cleaner found also showed excessive amounts of fluoride that would have damaged, rather than protect, teeth. On the plus side, a scalp health and hair-growing tonic might have stimulated some hair growth and definitely would have improved scalp health.

“It’s really interesting to look at what they were putting in these products a hundred years ago,” says von Wandruszka. “They came up with some really funny stuff, but some of it actually worked.”

In addition to research work in both anthropology and chemistry, the students helped co-write papers and presented at regional conferences.

Another aspect of the project is being carried out by Eddie Nance, a chemistry graduate student, who is working on the glass itself. He is testing and tracing the glass to get an idea of where the glass comes from.