SKODA AND OTHER VALLEY MEDICINES (June 13/97)

Until Leon Barron brought out the Skoda bottle, I had never heard of the old patent medicine and bottling company.

“Skoda operated in Wolfville at one time, probably over a hundred years ago,” Barron explained when he showed me the bottle he had picked up at a flea market.

“There was even a ship by the same name sailing out of Wolfville, but I’m not sure what the connection is with the Skoda Company.”

In the old days, meaning at least a century ago, people must have been totally dependent on so-called patent medicines. For the most part, these medicines were concocted and purveyed locally and treated every common illness than known to man.

Some patent medicines, perhaps the most effective, were promoted province-wide as well as nationally. And if the preponderance of medicinal ads in old newspapers is any indication, it must have been profitable treating grandpappy’s aches and sniffles. Our grandparents were apparently obsessed with their minor ailments and kept the medicine companies in business.

A few of the over-the-counter medicines marketed at the turn of the century – the ones that actually worked – are still on drugstore shelves today. One of the most effective and best-known is Minards Liniment, which may have originated in Yarmouth. According to the early ads for Minards, the liniment could be used for treating illness in both man and beast. I can vouch from experience that Minards worked wonders on chest and head colds – one sniff cleared your head instantly – and usually soothed the sprains and pains suffered in boyhood.

As mentioned, I had never heard of the Skoda Company until Leon Barren showed me one of their bottles. The legend on the bottle indicates it once contained sarsaparilla, a popular beverage in grandpappy’s day, but Barron has evidence that Skoda also produced patent medicines.

My curiosity about Skoda whetted, I quickly found evidence that Leon was right. Originally out of Belfast, Maine, the Skoda Discovery Company opened for business in Wolfville in 1890 or 1891, building a four-story factory near the current town library. Skoda prepared and bottled sarsaparilla in their first year of operation and in 1892 branched out into the production and sale of patent medicines. In Barron’s collection is an 1893 advertisement for Skoda in which a well-known doctor endorses their medicines.

There was a vessel called Skoda, probably named so due to some connection between its owner and the bottler. Barron recalls a photograph of the barquentine tied up at a wharf with the Skoda factory in the background, and the name on the vessel and the factory sign quite evident.

Competition from other patent medicines may have been too stiff or possibly their products weren’t effective. Whatever the explanation, within a few years of opening the Skoda pills and elixirs were no longer available and the company was out of the bottling business. Numerous other patent medicines were still available at the time, however. Recently, I looked through the pages of a newspaper from the Skoda period and counted 43 patent medicine ads.

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