Small bottles for medicine
Glass bottles like this one were made by hand in China. A pharmacist then filled the bottle with medicine and labeled it. Chinese doctors and herbalists prescribed these medicines to their patients. In the Market Street Chinatown, there were at least three doctors (Dr. Chung Lee, Dr. Cog Eye, and Dr. Lum Po Tai) and three drugstores. Perhaps somebody bought this medicine from one of them.
Historian Philip P. Choy has examples of traditional Chinese medicine bottles from the San Francisco Chinatown in the early 1900s (pictured below). The bottle from the Market Street Chinatown may have been packaged like this, in a little box, with a large piece of paper telling how to use the medicine.
What’s the red powder?
Chemists used several tests to find that the red powder in this medicine bottle is a mineral called cinnabar, also called Zhu Sha in Chinese. Cinnabar is easily recognized by its bright red color. An herbalist or doctor probably prepared the powder by grinding the cinnabar rock with a mortar and pestle.
Takes away the fire
People who practice Traditional Chinese Medicine say that good health comes from the balance of two forces called yin and yang. If a body’s yang energy is out of balance, the body has too much “heat.” This cinnabar could have been used to “lower the yang,” helping the body return to health.
A medicine for many purposes
Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine used cinnabar to treat restlessness, anxiety, insomnia, epilepsy, fevers, mouth ulcers, infections, snakebites, and much more. Patients usually took cinnabar by mouth as a pill or powder. They could also breathe in the powder or rub it on their skin. Today we know cinnabar contains mercury, which is toxic in high doses or after long-term use.
Chinese and Euro-American medicine
In the same trash pit as this vial, archaeologists found a pharmacy bottle from Shaw & Callisch Drugs, a Euro-American pharmacy in San Jose. It seems that Chinese residents in 19th century in San Jose used both Chinese and Euro-American medicine to stay healthy. We know from newspapers and diaries that many Chinese doctors and herbalists treated non-Chinese patients too.
Lee Liu Chin: Zhu Sha or “red sand”
Lee Liu Chin: What else is cinnabar used for?
“There Was a Chinatown Here” by Market Street Chinatown Archaeology Project (Chinese Historical and Cultural Project, Stanford University, and History San Jose) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.