Monday, February 04, 2008

Wakefield's Blackberry Balsam

Wakefield’s Almanac guaranteed to cure all
By Bill Steinbacher-KempLibrarian/ArchivistMcLean County Museum of History

BLOOMINGTON -- One hundred years ago, poor souls suffering from diarrhea or other “bowel complaints” would’ve sought relief by grabbing a 35-cent bottle of Wakefield’s Blackberry Balsam. Concocted and bottled at Dr. Cyrenius Wakefield’s bustling Bloomington factory, Wakefield’s Blackberry Balsam was one of the most popular “patent medicines” of its day.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, America was awash with these patent medicines, a term for suspect remedies that promised to cure seemingly every affliction known to humankind, from indigestion to paralysis to even “female troubles.”

For instance, Wakefield promised would-be customers that his Blackberry Balsam — featuring the slogan “Once Tried, Always Used”— would also alleviate life-threatening dysentery, and could also be administered by farmers to cure “looseness of the bowels” in newborn livestock. Yet, in this instance at least, there was some pharmacological science behind Wakefield’s claims, since the astringent quality of blackberry bark and root has long been recognized as a diarrhea remedy.

Wakefield, a native of Watertown, N.Y., first arrived in Bloomington in 1837. He taught in area schools, farmed in DeWitt County and eventually went into the dry goods and patent medicine business with his brother Zera. By 1850, Cyrenius Wakefield was back in Bloomington to stay, where his medicine business grew into one of the largest such concerns in downstate Illinois. Like many who sold tonics, pills and creams, Wakefield called himself a doctor, though, like many “doctors” of the day, he had no formal medical training.

By the 1880s, Wakefield & Co., with its factory at the corner of East Washington and Evans streets (today the site of the old Bloomington High School), employed 25 to 35 employees year-round, including women and girls. Not only was Wakefield involved in manufacturing various patent medicines, but he also ran a sizable printing house to churn out advertising literature.

Modern advertising owes its existence to the patent medicine business, as manufacturers like Wakefield relied on promotional giveaways, such as almanacs and account books, to spread their brand-name, cure-all gospel. Another staple of the patent medicine sales pitch was the testimonial, whereby manufacturers would publish supposedly authentic letters from customers effusively praising the life-saving benefits of the company’s miracle nostrums. B.W. Rice of Bethlehem, Ind., for example, said Wakefield’s Cough Syrup saved his sister’s life.“She coughed day and night, and finally came to my house to die,” he wrote. “I immediately got your Cough Syrup and gave her of it freely, and in three weeks she went home; but she did not take her cough with her, for she was well.”

Wakefield’s product line included more than cough syrup and his signature blackberry-flavored tonic. A pocket almanac doubled as a veritable pharmacopeia of the many cure alls manufactured and sold by Wakefield & Co. This almanac featured advertisements and testimonials for Wakefield’s Golden Ointment, good for burns, boils, chapped hands and hemorrhoids; Wakefield’s Worm Destroyer, for the treatment of intestinal parasites in children and adults; and Wakefield’s Liver Pills, helpful for not only liver and kidney troubles, but indigestion and “removing offending matter from the stomach and bowels.”

Cyrenius Wakefield passed away on Feb. 20, 1885, at the age of 70, and he is buried at Evergreen Memorial Cemetery. His business, though, survived into the 20th century.

Passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 marked the beginning of the end of patent medicines. Even so, the all-American hucksterism of the industry somehow survives today in the marketing of dubious “nutritional supplements” that promise, among other modern-day miracles, weight loss and “male enhancement.”

As late as the 1980s, Wakefield’s Blackberry Balsam was still available in specialty stores, though it was bottled by a New York-based company.


GretaN said...

my great-great grandmother, Dr. Mrs. Rebecca Keck, of Davenport Iowa, was a friend of Dr. Wakefield's and I have quite a bit of information about him and his family that Dr. Keck's daughter (Cora Keck Cook) saved in her scrapbook. Based on the label that you have posted, I will probably be able to locate a photograph of him in Cora's photo albums. I'm writing a book based on this research--please contact me about this connection!

Greta Nettleton
P.O. Box 75
Palisades, NY 10964

Jeffrey said...


Does anyone know where we can find the Wakefield's Blackberry balsom, they started phasing it out in the 80's but there are still some places you can find it, we just don't know where, any help would be appreciated, thanks you can email us at

Reference Services said...

Your blog is great!

Here is the url of the blog from the Archives of the Sandusky Library if you would like to take a look:

anthony and lydia said...

Whatever you need about the guy...let me know. I have all of his bottled products,mostly empty, I even have a couple an almanac from 1869!


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