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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Love Potions

Medicine was far from an exact science on the Wisconsin frontier. Pioneer druggists, in particular, often invented their own concoctions to treat the ailments that settlers brought to them.

George Howard (1832-1892) may have been a typical example. He briefly attended a pharmacy school in his native England before immigrating to Wisconsin. After arriving in 1850 as a teenager, he worked in a pharmacy for a year in Delavan before moving to LaCrosse in 1852. At the time, the city was hardly more than a hamlet on the riverbank, and Howard opened the first drugstore between Minneapolis and Dubuque.

His daughter recalled that he had a large recipe book containing directions to make a wide variety of unique medicines. It detailed concoctions for "everything the flesh is heir to, from 'baking powders' to 'love powders'." Howard's children combed the Mississippi bluffs and coulees with him to gather roots, leaves, flowers, and bark which he rolled, ground, and pressed by hand into pills. Even the labels on his jars were lettered and cut by hand.

Love potions were popular among superstitious country folk and many druggists sold their own unique blend to help the love-lorn. Howard knew that much of this trade was created merely for thrills, though he noted that the majority of results seemed to be positive. This suggested to him that the power of faith in a medicine could at times be as effective as the chemical content itself.

Howard became not only a successful merchant and a leader of early LaCrosse society, but also was one of the founding members of the Wisconsin Pharmaceutical Association, serving as its president in 1884.

He was casual about religious observances, and during his final illness the local minister dropped by to encourage a more zealous piety in his last hours. Howard sent the cleric away with the comment that, "If my religion has been good enough to live by, it is good enough to die by."

He passed away a week later, 40 years to the day from the opening of his pharmacy on the banks of the Mississippi.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on May 12, 2011
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