Monday, January 16, 2012

A "Killer" Find

In March of 2009, grandson Nathan and I took our kayaks out to the Pedernales River in central Texas.  Despite the Texas drought, this stretch of the river at the U.S. 281 crossing is dammed and it provides a suitable small lake for us to paddle on.   Nathan was seven at the time, but he easily handled his own kayak as we explored the river for turtles, fish, and birds, and enjoyed the Texas spring sunshine.

For better or worse, Nathan has inherited the "collecting gene."  From almost every outing, he brings home rocks, sticks, and other small objects, and he has been especially successful at finding forgotten change in and under vending machines.  Naturally, when he and I pulled over to the bank for a break we both walked the slope, heads down, looking for small treasures.
We didn't find arrowheads, gold coins, or early bottles, but there were pieces of rusty barbed wire, interesting rocks, raccoon tracks and deer droppings – also known as "smart pills" – yes, I shared that old joke with the grandsons years ago.  

Nathan was busy filling his pockets with suitable rocks when he found something else.  "What's this, Pops?" he asked, as he handed me his most recent find.  It was a piece of broken crockery or pottery, and a nice one, because it had part of a name imprinted in the clay.   It was about two and one-half inches from top to bottom, and the readable letters were "Wm" on the top line and "CROB" on the second line.   The outside was a nice mottled tan glaze and the inside had a shiny brown glaze.  

I told Nathan that it was probably a piece of a stoneware jug and perhaps a hundred years old.  I thought we might be able to find out more about it from the lettering since there is a lot of recorded history about early Texas pottery.  We talked a little about the importance and use of crocks and jugs to early settlers, and about their manufacture.  Nathan agreed to let me take the piece home and photograph it and to do some internet research to try to identify it.  

I looked at lists of early Texas potters on the internet hoping for a hit, and I tried to figure out words or names that might fit the letters we had, but I didn't have much luck.  Then I emailed a scan of the piece to two friends, Fraser Harris, a potter and collector of early crocks, and Larry Jones, another collector.  

It was only minutes later that Larry emailed back and said the piece was part of an old pottery jug that once held Wm RADAM'S MICROBE KILLER, a patent "snake oil" medicine created in the 1880s by William Radam, a Texas nurseryman who had previously invented several potions to kill blight and fungi on plants.   Right on the heels of that email came one from Fraser, who had come to the same conclusion and found a similar jug in a book on early Texas pottery.  

So, the mystery was quickly and easily solved, and the story was facinating – William Radam had concocted and sold a patent medicine which he claimed would cure most any human illness.

After working for 20 years at his own nursery business near Austin, Radam came down with malaria, and he theroized that he might cure human diseases the same way he had been curing the diseases of plants.  He tried several concoctions, and after 6 months of drinking the potions, declared himself cured.  Radam claimed the potion was a complex process that used sulfur, sodium nitrate, manganese oxide, sandalwood, and potassium chloride.

The first Microbe Killer jugs appear to have been salt-glazed stoneware manufactured by Meyer Pottery in Atascosa, just south of San Antonio.  It seemed that Nathan had found a piece of one of those and the jug had probably been thrown into a trash dump on or near the bank of the river.

Below is a stoneware jug that is similar to the the one that which Nathan's pottery sherd was originally a part of.

Other types of bottles and and jugs were later used for the "Killer" and by 1890, the medicine was being made in a string of factories from coast to coast.  It cost about 5 cents a gallon to produce and sold for 53 cents a jug.     Radam also created a very noticeable trademark for his product.

Radam's Microbe Killer label, 1887, Photo by Mary Margret

Radam's Microbe Killer Jugs

 Radam's Bottle  
In 1888, while in Austin, Texas, Radam built the Koppel Building at 322 Congress Avenue, which still stands today.  Radam became wealthy from the patent medicine business and moved to a luxury mansion overlooking New York's Central Park.  He opened factories in London and Melbourne, Australia.  Radam died a rich man in 1902, and is buried in Austin's Oakwood Cemetery.

Koppel Building, Austin, Texas,  Photo by Larry Miller

Radam's heirs continued to make money from sales of the Killer, but in 1912, an amendment to the Pure Food and Drugs Act, made deception in labeling illegal, and his potion was determined to be mostly water with a little red wine and dashes of hydrochloric and sulfuric acids. It was worthless as a medicine, and the lucrative business quickly came to an end.

Thanks to Nathan's keen eye, we both ended up with something for "Show and Tell."  He took the the pottery sherd and it's story to school, and he allowed me to write about his find in this blog entry.

For more information on Wm Radam's Microbe Killer or early Texas pottery the following websites might give you a start:

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