Lisa Bright, the reigning Campus Archaeologist, wrote to me recently to say that she had discovered a Listerine bottle in the Admin/Gunson assemblage that was excavated during the CAP field school this past summer. While a Listerine bottle may seem like a fairly innocuous item (especially when found in the context of the extremely large Admin assemblage), the bottle actually tells us quite a bit about past activities on campus. Or, rather, it gives us a clue about the past activities. Part of the fun of archaeology is detective work, and this bottle is a great example of how historical archaeologists can use a blend of archival information and historical advertisements in their assessment of artifacts.
What makes this bottle particularly useful for interpreting past activities is that the hand blown maker’s mark indicates that it was made by the Obear-Nester glass company of East St. Louis in Illinois between 1895-1914. According to the Listerine website (www.listerine.co.za), Dr. Joseph Lister entered the history books as the first surgeon to operate in a sterilized chamber; following this operation, sterilization became a critical component in surgical theaters, leading to a significant reduction of infections and deaths. Having been inspired by Dr. Lister’s work, Dr. Joseph Lawrence formulated a compound in 1879 that could be used as a disinfectant for surgical rooms as well as a wash for abrasions and wounds. Named after Dr. Lister, Listerine was used for surgical and dental purposes until around 1914 and could be attained only through prescription. After 1915, Listerine re-branded their product and changed their marketing focus to combatting bad breath, enabling sales of the solution over the counter (a first for a prescription product in the United States). We can even thank Listerine for coining the term, “halitosis” (www.listerine.com.za/history/brand-heritage).
So, what does a surgical and bad breath antiseptic mean for archaeology (and for early MSU students)? Because of Lisa’s research, we are able to position the Listerine bottle from the Admin/Gunson assemblage within that first wave of prescription Listerine products. The fact that it was found in this collection of materials is interesting – and its presence makes us question what activity (or mishap!) led to need for the prescription. In contrast, CAP has found another Listerine bottle at People’s Park that was made after 1915. Because Listerine was widely available then as an anti-bad breath agent, we can confidently infer its usage. The Admin/Gunson bottle, however, will have to be understood within the context of the rest of the assemblage. It will be exciting to see if more medical bottles are located in the artifacts excavated this summer.
A Google search for historical Listerine ads will result in a many images of advertisements that center around a common theme of women looking forlorn that they have such horrible breath. In modern context, they are quite funny. Imagine a student at MSU viewing one of these ads then rushing out to buy Listerine! If anyone has access to Listerine ads that ran earlier than 1914, please let us know.