Dr. Phelp’s Genuine Arcanum

Provenance: Michael George Collection

Our museum example of a “Dr. Phelps Arcanum Genuine” was found in a house in Washington, New Hampshire. The woman who owned it remembered playing with the bottle as a child when it wasn’t on her grandmother’s mantle. She was completely overwhelmed to know the value of her “childhood toy.” 

The six-sided “Dr. Phelps Arcanum Genuine” bottle is a dark reddish amber glass color, has an open pontil base and an applied tapered collar. The bottle is embossed shoulder to base in somewhat crude serifed letters, ‘DR: PHELPS’ (1st line, colon instead of a period after “DR.”), ‘ARCANUM ‘(2nd line), and ‘GENUINE’ (third line). The other three blank panels are where a paper label may have been placed.

There are around a half dozen known examples of this bottle which is considered to be one of the best colored pontiled medicine bottles. It is attributed to a Stoddard, New Hampshire glasshouse. Besides its rarity, the bottle has a very pleasing to the eye short neck and multisided form. The bottle won first place in the “Best Massachusetts Bottle” in the 2017 FOHBC Springfield National Bottle Competition.

Azor Rounday Phelps

Azor Rounday Phelps was born on April 30, 1798, in Worcester County, Massachusetts. His father was Capt. Azor Phelps (1761-1837), the third son of Henry and Sarah Rounday Phelps born in Sutton, Massachusetts, on October 13, 1761. He was a revolutionary soldier who was discharged on October 10, 1780, and noted as marching 190 miles home. Capt. Phelps was a farmer and blacksmith, and in the latter employment made scythes and other farming implements. He settled first in Millbury, moving next to Worcester, and about in 1816 to Shrewsbury. He died in Shrewsbury on April 2, 1837, due to a hernia caused by the kick of a horse. Azor’s mother was Dolly Makepeace.

Dr. Azor R. Phelps started saying he was a doctor in the early 1820s though we see no record of his medical education. Often, “doctor types” would come across a magic healing elixir and somehow become an “M.D.” and proprietor in their advertising and historical listings. At any rate, Azor Phelps started selling his Phelps’ Arcanum somewhere around 1824, according to newspaper testimonials. He operated out of Worcester, Mass from about 1830 until his death in 1843.

In 1828, Phelps would publish his “Remarks, Preliminary to the Exhibition of Dr. Phelps’ Practically Established Arcanum,” which was twelve pages of Phelps’ Arcanum wisdom, accolades, testimonials, and directions. By 1830, he established his Phelps Laboratory in Worcester, Mass. A few testimonial examples follow and were used to “express purpose of proving, to the satisfaction of every candid and impartial mind, and, especially, those in pursuit of health and a scientific preparation of medicine, the superior powers, efficacy, and cheapness of the Arcanum, to any medicine ever offered for sale in America.” One was from Dr. R. Clayton of North Carolina dated Wilkesboro’, Oct. 9, 1824. Another was from J. V. Moran, M. D. of New Orleans, Louisiana dated July 7, 1828, another from S. C. Hay, M. D. of Charleston, South, Carolina dated Aug. 3, 1828, and yet another from R. M. S. Tompkins, M. D. in Baltimore, Maryland dated June 10, 1828.

Dr. Azor R Phelps would marry Anna Janette Warl on November 18, 1833, in Worcester (Shrewsberry), Massachusetts. Their children were Virginia Isabel, Sarah Janett, Robert Archer, Harriet Jemima, and Martha Maria Phelps.

By the mid-1830s, Dr. Phelps’ Arcanum had become a very popular medicine selling for $2 a bottle, represented and sold by agents in regional towns and cities primarily in New England. The medicine was said to cure just about anything under the sun and was a competitor of Swaim’s Panacea. Dr. Phelps offered refunds if his medicine would not cure your disease. Testimonials continued to fill newspaper ads from prominent doctors and clergymen who said the Arcanum was the best. In 1839, advertising said, “Phelps’s Arcanum patronized by the Navy of the United States.” By 1841 advertising said, “Warranted to relieve or cure in every case, for which it is designed. Sold extensively in the U. States, British Provinces, West Indies, Texas, &c.” Oddly, advertising would stop that year. Azor R. Phelps died shortly thereafter on October 14, 1843.

See the museum example of the round indented panel Phelps’s Arcanum Worcester Mass. bottle

Primary Image: Dr. Phelps Arcanum Genuine bottle imaged on location by Alan DeMaison, FOHBC Virtual Museum Midwest Studio

Support Image: Auction Lot 101: “DR. PHELPS’S – ARCANUM – GENUINE”, (Odell, pg. 279), Massachusetts, ca. 1840 – 1860, dark (approaching black) ‘old’ amber, 6-sided, 8”h, pontil scarred base has an in-making chip, applied double collar mouth. Perfect condition and loaded with tiny air bubbles. Extremely rare, possibly only four or five known examples. The multisided Phelps’s Arcanum is among the most sought after of all colored pontiled medicines. Besides its rarity, it has a very pleasing to the eye short neck and multisided form. The last one to sell at auction was 17-years ago. Miss this one and it might be another 17-years before the next one comes to auction! – Jim Hagenbuch, Glass Works Auctions, Premier Auction #153

Support Image: “Phelps Arcanum For Sale Here” lithograph with its rows of bottles supporting a dome or canopy, over which floated a winged figure with a scroll bearing the words: “Phelps’s Arcanum.” and about the base boxes of the medicine directed to all parts of the world, derives special interest from the fact that it was designed and drawn on the stone by George L. Brown, before spoken of, and now an eminent American landscape artist – passage from Proceedings of the Worcester Society of Antiquity, Volume 6 by Worcester Historical Society, Worcester, Mass · 1885

Support: Reference to Remarks, Preliminary to the Exhibition of Dr. Phelps’ Practically Established Arcanum – National Library of Medicine. Est. 1828

Support: Reference to Pontiled Medicine Price Guide by Jim Holst, Eleventh Edition, 2012

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