Cures and Quackery: The Rise of Patent Medicines
QUASSIA or TONIC CUP
1850-1900, 19th century
14.1 x 6.8 cm
Gift of Mrs. Donald A. MacInnes
© McCord Museum
Keywords: Cup (36)
Keys to History
Quassia - also called bitter ash, bitterwood, bitter bark, etc. - is a tropical tree whose wood was used for its vivifying properties. In the 1800s, quassia chips were decocted or infused to make popular tonics sold over the counter in many pharmacies. One pharmacology treatise notes that this medicine "acts gradually on the entire system to increase strength in a lasting manner."
Quassia was said to stimulate the gastro-intestinal tract, thus improving appetite and aiding digestion. An analeptic, or restorative, it was extolled as a natural product that fortifies the blood, like the iron found in meat.
Some also recommended it for soothing itchy mosquito bites.
Traité élémentaire de matière médicale et guide pratique des soeurs de charité de l'Asile de la Providence (Montreal: Imprimerie de la Providence, 1890), p. 483.
J. K. Crellin, Home Medicine (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994), p. 118.
This cup is made of quassia wood. The cup and its contents share the same name, since the cup itself brewed the remedy. Water left standing in it overnight became a bitter infusion that served as a stomach tonic.
Bitterwood, one of several names for quassia, comes from the tropical forests of South America. It was sold in Canada by doctors and druggists.
This cup probably dates to the latter half of the 19th century. Quassia was used until the 1890s to treat severe weakness, headaches and digestive problems.
Prescribed by doctors or sold over the counter by druggists, quassia was recommended for people suffering from chronic fatigue, poor digestion and loss of appetite.