16 Science: California Gold Rush Medicine


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Gold Rush Medicine


Students will discover the healing properties of lavender, chia seeds, camomile, and other plants.  Students will also learn about hucksters and how some profited from selling “medicines” that were sometimes unsafe and most of the time useless.


  • Mortar and Pestle
  • Lavender
  • Chia Seeds
  • Camomile


We discussed snake oil salesmen in our video this week and talked about how some sold bottles of elixir that one could rub on their body and roll down a mountain to collect gold.  This was one of the many “cure alls” that were sold in the late 1840’s.

  • Our students will discuss the healing properties of the three ingredients and then mix them to make a cure.
  • They may add water or leave it dry.
  • Ask your students to tell you what they are curing and how it is to be applied.
  • Students should pack their cure in one of the bags to bring home.

None of the ingredients are harmful to students but it is still not a good idea to ingest them.  Please be sure to tell your students that they should not eat their experiment.


Dr. Andral S. Kilmer’s Swamp Root

Kilmer’sSwamp Root was a popular remedy. Perhaps because of its name, appears to suggest something exotic, mysterious, and not easily attainable.

According to a reference on Native American healing and herbal remedies, there is a plant called in Spanish, yerba del Manzo (herb of the swamp), whose scientific name is anemopis Californica, though it grows mostly in Arizona.

The root was used as an antiseptic and sometimes as a tea recommended for soothing ulcer pain. It is not known if this is the same “swamp root” referenced by Dr. Kilmer, but as in many cases, the purported ingredients of any particular patent medicine were sometimes not included at all.

The image of Dr. S. Andral Kilmer M.D., appeared on all packages, labels, books and promotions. The distribution of his products was so widespread that his face was more recognizable than that of the president in many parts of the country.

Swamp Root, in its many forms and variations was by far Dr. Kilmer’s most famous product, however he also lent his face to the promotion of Dr. Kilmer’s Ocean Weed Heart Remedy, Dr. Kilmer’s Indian Cough Cure, Dr. Kilmer’s Female Remedy, described as “The great Blood Purifier and System Regulator” as well as “The only Herbal Alterative and Depurative Ever Discovered, Specifically Adapted to female Constitutions….”) and Dr.Kilmer’s Prompt Parilla Liver Pills.

Kilmer’s enterprises were so successful that he inspired imitators…perhaps even counterfeiters, who produced products which cannot be found in any of the company’s official advertising, such as: “Dr. Kilmer’s Wild Indian Female Cancer Injection”, and “Dr. Kilmer’s Wild Indian Female Secret”.

In 1882, after fire destroyed the first Kilmer factory, the new plant in Binghamton New York, was capable of filling over 2000 bottles an hour. The economic impact on the area was significant, since their Swamp Root remained the primary product and the factory employed hundreds of people. It’s label retained Kilmer’s visage long after the Dr. had relinquished control of the company.


Our Science is two fold this week.  We didn’t want to miss out on teaching our children about the Spinning Jenny (named after an engine (gin) that spins or the inventor’s wife Jenny) and the age of industry so we included this in our book.

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Read the following excerpt and discuss how machines such as this and the cotton gin transformed the US from a predominately agrarian society to one of industry.  More and more people moved away from their farms and into cities with factories.

Ask your students to draw a very simple Spinning Jenny and then draw an invention that they think could revolutionize today.  This assignment should take less than 10 minutes.

Hargreaves’ story begins in Oswaldtwistle, England, where he was born in 1720. Working as a carpenter and a weaver, he had no formal education and was never taught how to read or write. Legend has it that Hargreaves’ daughter Jenny knocked over a spinning wheel, and as he watched the spindle roll across the floor, the idea for the spinning jenny came to him.

However, the story is just a legend. Jenny was rumored to have been the name of Hargreaves’ wife and that he named his invention after her.

The original spinning jenny used eight spindles instead of the one found on the spinning wheel. A single wheel on the spinning jenny controlled eight spindles, which created a weave using eight threads spun from a corresponding set of rovings. Later models had up to one-hundred and twenty spindles.

James Hargreaves made a number of spinning jennies and started to sell a few of them in the area. However, since each machine was capable of doing the work of eight people, other spinners were angry about the competition. In 1768, a group of spinners broke into Hargreaves’ house and destroyed his machines to prevent the machines from taking work away from them.

Opposition to the machine caused Hargreaves to relocate to Nottingham, where him and partner Thomas James set up a small mill to supply hosiery makers with suitable yarn. On July 12, 1770, Hargreaves took out a patent on a sixteen spindle spinning jenny and soon after sent out notice to others who were using copies of the machine that he would pursue legal action against them.

The manufacturers he went after offered him a sum of 3,000 pounds to drop the case, though he requested 7,000 pounds. Hargreaves lost the case when it turned out that the courts rejected his patent application for his first spinning jenny because he had made and sold several too long before he filed for a patent.

While James Hargreaves’ invention did in fact decrease the need for labor, they also saved money. The only drawback was that his machine produced thread that was too coarse to be used for warp threads (the weaving term for the series of yarns that extended lengthways in a loom) and could only produce weft threads (the weaving term for the crossways yarn).

The spinning jenny was commonly used in the cotton and fustian industry until about 1810. It was eventually replaced by the spinning mule.

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