Friday, February 19, 2010

Gold Rush Doctors McDonald & Levy

While we are on the subject of gold rush era bottles thought I might relate a little information about another couple of pioneer merchants.

In 1849, a year after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill; Richard McDonald opened a drug store at 143 J Street in Sacramento California. McDonald’s first drug store was operated from a wood and tent structure and sometime in 1852 he took as a partner a Mr. Levy.

Sometime in 1853 the partners started a traveling drug store to supply remote mining camps with medicinal supplies. McDonald and Levy’s idea of taking a wagon load of medicine and drugs to the miners was not revolutionary but their timing was perfect, few if any early mining camps at that time had a drug store or a place to buy medicine.

It is believed that Levy ran the medicine show (or traveling drug store) while Mc Donald was in charge of the store on J Street in Sacramento. Levy took his wagon from the placer diggings in the Mother Lode foothills all the way up into the northern mines area of the Sierra Nevada Mountains peddling the wagons nostrums’.

The traveling drug store was a huge success and by 1853 The Miners Drug Store of Sacramento was firmly established. Levy left the partnership around 1854 and quite possibly the embossed bottle that they are responsible for was made for only one year

By early 1860 the R.H. McDonald Co. was primarily a wholesale drug business with a branch office in San Francisco and an agent for William T. Cutter Whisky. One of McDonald’s best selling products was J. Walker’s Vinegar Bitters and was responsible for the great success of his company. McDonald continued in the wholesale drug business until his death in Montreal Canada in 1903.

The Compound Fluid Extract of Manzanita bottle produced by McDonald and Levy is believed to have contained a remedy for the rash from poison oak or ivy. I have no concrete proof that the Manzanita product was a cure for poison oak.

Back in 1993 two undamaged examples of the Manzanita bottle were recovered from the early gold rush settlement of American Hill. Another example of the Extract of Manzanita was discovered in the Forest City area in the late 1990’s and later sold at a Glassworks Auction.

Both American Hill and Forest City are located near the Henness Pass Road, an early wagon road used to reach the gold rush camps in western and southern Sierra County. The discovery of these bottles near a major gold rush road and the abundance of poison oak in that vicinity lead me to speculate that old Doc Levy’s traveling medicine show quite possibly visited the Southern Sierra County area during gold rush times.


  1. Those little gems are real gold rush history! I would love to have dug one of those bottles. Has anyone determined how many undamaged examples of this bottle exist? Also, where have they been dug other than the area mentioned? Oldcutters, have you recovered any of these in your past travels? I have always heard they were for poison oak also, but have never seen any evidence of that. They look like jamaica ginger bottles. It would be great to see some detailed advertising for this product.

  2. I have dug two of those little gems in Old Sacramento. of course, that was back in the "olden days", long before they escalated to the exalted, and well deserved, place they now hold in collectors esteem. At that time, which was in the early 1970s, they were worth over a hundred bucks. That was not small change in the bottle world back then, either. Most whiskies could be had for little more than that, and some good ones for much less.

    The Manzanita bottles were produced in the early 1850s, long before trademarks were considered and product advertising was prevalent on this end of the US. I haven't seen any claims to it's medicinal qualities, but will be happy to delve more deeply into the subject.

    The last example that I can recall being dug in Sacramento was back in the mid-'90s when it was pulled from a pit on 12th St by A.T. Out of the many pontil pits we have dug in the ensuing years, not so much as a shard of this little jewel has appeared.

  3. I will venture to say that the Extract of Manzanita product was more popular in the Sierra's than in Sacto, and Rick's report kinda confirms it for me. For 10 yrs (1981-91), I dug almost every wknd in Sac. I dug over 1000 privies there, and at least 100 1850s holes. Never came across one of these gems, I can sadly say.

  4. The little "Manzanita" bottle can't be from the 1850s, it has curved "R"s. Just a little Saturday morning humor.

    Other than a few dug from mining camps, most of the McDonald and Levy bottles came out of Old Sac, and the above mentioned one from a pit on one of the main roads out of town.

  5. In the mid 80s A.T. and I dug one in Sacramento. It came out of a very early pontiled hole along with a cobalt iron pontiled mug base "Superior Mineral Water" bottle I remember. A little further up the Valley and 25 years later I dug another one with a little damage. They sure do have a lot of writing for a little bottle. The native Americans were the first to discover its curative properties which included:
    Poison Oak: Manzanita berries were made into a tea and applied as a lotion for relief from poison oak.
    Dropsy, Bronchitis and Colds: A mixture of both the leaves and the berries was used for relief from dropsy, bronchitis and sever colds. Some sources say that this tonic is too strong to be taken internally.
    Stomach Problems and Weight Loss: A tea was made from the leaves of the Manzanita for stomach relief. It was also used to reduce fat.
    Rheumatism: A tea was made from the leaves of Manzanita for a bath to aid in Rheumatism.
    Headache: Manzanita leaves were boiled down into a yellowish-brown extract which was used as a wash to stop certain types of headaches. A tea was also made for the same purpose.
    Sores: The Concow Indians chewed the leaves of the manzanita and applied the thick pad produced as a poultice on sores.