True Daffy’s Elixir

By Rebecca Ruger Wightman

medicine bottles

Heaven forbid you suffered from “the stone and gravel in the reins”, or an “exulceration of the kidney or mouth of the bladder,” “the green sickness,” or either “scurvy or dropsy” back in 17th century England—as not any one of them sound as if you’re likely to recover. But if you should be so unfortunate, never fear: Daffy’s Elixir (or Elixir Salutis) apparently cured anything. Purported to have been created by clergyman Thomas Daffy of Redmile, Leicestershire, in 1647, it was promoted as a cure-all and remained in production in some form until the nineteenth century, eventually making its way to the United States.

The elixir and any variation of Daffy’s Elixir (and there were many) were often dubbed a form of "quack medicine,” due in part to their uncertain chemical qualities, and dubious medicinal influences. The tonic most often contained aniseed, brandy, cochineal, elecampane, fennel seed, jalap, manna, parsley seed, raisin, rhubarb, saffron, senna and Spanish licorice, which sounds likely as horrible as it tasted, and which today’s analysis would term merely a laxative. (Often the brandy was replaced by gin, a cheaper alcohol, and thus in the 1800s Daffy’s became a slang name for gin.)

recipe for daffy's elixir

Modern Domestic Cookery, and Useful Receipt Book , 1829  William Augustus Henderson

The Ladies’ Friend, and Family Physical Library, published in 1788, notes:

"This is an agreeable Purge [if there is such a thing!], and nothing more can be useful than to keep it ready made for family use."

True Daffy's Elixir Bottle

True Daffy’s Elixir, likely 1830-1850

While the tincture itself maintains its questionable history, the bottles are something altogether different, being now considered a British classic bottle. Many different glass manufacturers got in on the Daffy’s action over many centuries, most notably Dicey & Co. bottles, and more rarely Staples, Barclays, Wrays, Jacksons, and Doct Daffy bottle makers. Prior to the Revolutionary War, the elixir was exported to America, but after 1800 it was made in Pennsylvania by the Dyottville Glassworks. Various makers remain unknown, the bottles having no company name or identifying marks. Typically, the bottles were squat and rectangular and heavily embossed, standing mostly under five inches in height, made in olive or aquamarine or pale teal, and found with either pontil-ed or smooth bases. Whole bottles might fetch as much as $5,000 at auction, depending on age, color, condition and maker.

Oh, that "green sickness"?  Well, we’re not exactly sure what it is, but assume it has something to do with the many archaic "women's diseases" and as such, one was often thought to be afflicted with a pallor and lethargy and weakness, and sometimes even hysteria. This assumption is based entirely on a found “Daffy’s Elixir Pamphlet,” printed in 1674, which claims quite theatrically:

“It also certainly and speedily cures the Green-sickness (of any kinde or nature whatsoever,) not failing to bring Virgins to their Maiden blush,  rendering painting altogether out of fashion, making the Face well coloured, the Breath sweet, and the Body lusty.”

Yes, you read that right.

All horrid and implausible disorders aside, the bottle is quite fine, and likely to be a prized possession for any beachcomber lucky enough to find any recognizable piece of it on the beach.

This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine July 2017 issue.

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