Controversies have always raged over the morals of the New Englanders of past centuries but Robert G. Newman, whose collection of old bottles is now being shown at the Berkshire Museum, has answered the question of why there was no AA in the Berkshires of yesteryear. The staid elders found their spirits via the old-fashioned patent medicines which contained about 90 percent alcohol. Mr. Newman, whose interesting collection contains his specialty, bitters bottles, understates the case by saying, “There was sometimes a little hypocrisy about medicine-taking in those days.”

Among the 300 old bottles now on exhibit at the museum, there are two in the bitters bottle portion which have interesting Pittsfield connections. One of them is marked, “N.L. Pearson, Pittsfield.” Mr. Newman has been unable to trace such a person but he believes that it probably belonged to a doctor whose custom it was to have his name blown into his medicine bottles.

The second bottle is marked “Renne’s Magic Oil” and by the help of the local history librarian, Miss Clark, your reporter traced the origin of this one in a Pittsfield directory of 1878. It says there that William Renne, the inventor of the “Magic Oil,” had a varied career before he made his fortune on his panacea. Born in Dalton on July 27, 1809, he entered the Crane mill at the age of 12, and later went into the business of making neck stocks. After this venture, the enterprising Renne went into the manufacture of Clough’s Columbian Pills and the next logical step was the “Magic Oil.”

His advertising, often in the Pittsfield Sun, shows that Renne foresaw many future trends in advertising, for one of his ads for the medicine stated, “I have nearly a thousand certificates of recommend, from persons who have used this article, and it is called ‘The best thing ever introduced to the public as a medicine for speedy relief, and as a pain killer it works like a charm. There is virtue in it.’”

This is probably more honest than his boast for the Clough Columbian Pills which he claimed “not only cure but prevent disease.” Most of the contents of the bitters bottles were reputed to be about equally successful whether taken internally or simply rubbed on.

This Story in History is selected from the archives by Jeannie Maschino, The Berkshire Eagle.

Community News Editor / Librarian

Jeannie Maschino is community news editor and librarian for The Berkshire Eagle. She has worked for the newspaper in various capacities since 1982 and joined the newsroom in 1989.