We’ve all heard of a message in a bottle, but what about a sponge in a bottle? When we first came across a couple of them in the archeology collection from the Abiel Smith School site in Boston, we were a bit puzzled. Were they sponge stoppers that sank down into the bottles? Some sort of natural history specimens? A little brainstorming and a bit of research revealed a more likely explanation, which led us to the strangely fascinating world of anesthesia history. Now here’s a rabbit hole worth exploring!
There are two bottles with sponges in the Smith School collection. Both are small medicinal-type bottles. One is aqua glass, blown into a 2-part mold with a rolled-out finish and open pontil mark on the base. The other is colorless glass, blown into a 3-part mold with a flared finish and sand/disk pontil mark. These diagnostic traits date both bottles to the first half of the 19th century. The pieces of natural sponge stuck inside indicate that they may have been used for inhaling ether or chloroform vapors. Without getting too scientific here, allow us to explain.
Despite any romantic notions of the pre-industrial era, some things have undoubtedly gotten easier and more comfortable as we’ve progressed through history. Case in point – surgery. Consider the poor fellow in this aquatint from 1793, who is tied to a chair and restrained by several comrades as he undergoes the amputation of his leg. The look on his face says it all: pain, fear, horror. At the time, efforts to control pain during surgical procedures included opium, alcohol, herbal extracts, and knocks to the head, all uncontrolled and unreliable techniques.
The anesthetic qualities of ether were discovered over several years by several individuals. The first successful public demonstration of the use of ether during surgery was performed in 1846 by William Morton at what is now known as the Ether Dome in Massachusetts General Hospital – just a half-mile away from the Abiel Smith School. On that notable day at the Ether Dome, Morton’s patient escaped the pain of surgery by inhaling the fumes from an ether-soaked sponge contained in a vaporizer.
The vaporizer used during this famous procedure was created specifically for anesthesia: a glass globe with two necks as pictured below. As the use of ether (and quickly after, chloroform) became widespread, doctors invented more elaborate inhalers that could better control the concentration of ether delivered to the patient. (Note the comfy-looking contraption modeled by this 19th-century lady.) Despite the more sophisticated design of these medical devices, a sponge in a bottle could produce the same basic outcome of anesthetizing a patient, and was surely less expensive and easier to obtain.
According to a helpful anesthesia textbook we consulted, when ether or chloroform was placed in a closed container, some of the liquid molecules would evaporate to become vapor. The bottle-sponge combination acted as a vaporizer by turning liquid ether or chloroform into vapor that a patient could inhale. The sponge absorbed the liquid and the vapors evaporated off the sponge. The sponge was also effective in containing the liquid so that patients were not accidentally inhaling liquid ether or chloroform.
The Abiel Smith School was an all-black school that opened in Boston in 1835 and closed as a segregated school in 1855 upon the integration of the city’s public schools. The building continued being used as an integrated school until 1881 and had other uses afterwards, but the date of these bottles correspond perfectly to the school years. You’re probably wondering what anesthesia was doing in a school setting, right? Writing, arithmetic, and… surgery?
Not necessarily. Even before it was used in surgery, ether was known as a potent pain reliever. It was also prescribed for colic, diarrhea, cramps, dizziness, cholera, and faintings. One 19th-century apothecary named Dr. Thomas Ritter, whose complete medicine chest is in the collection at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, wrote of ether: “This medicine ought to be in every medicine chest, and every family.” Although ether could be administered in a few different ways, Dr. Ritter specifically suggested inhaling it to relieve asthma. (Eggleston, 2014)
The collection at the National Museum of Australia includes a 19th-century medicine chest complete with several bottles of medicine, including ether. According to the museum’s website, such chests were in common use in the 1800s and “…were advertised for the use of ‘clergymen, private families, heads of schools…among others.’” If heads of schools purchased these chests, then maybe finding evidence of ether at school sites is not that surprising?
Finding it at an all-black 19th-century school, however, begs other questions and adds another layer of historical importance. One of our research assistants is currently studying the medicinal bottles recovered archeologically from the Smith School site. She is investigating whether black students might have received some degree of medical treatment at school because mainstream health care was unavailable to them in racially segregated 19th-century Boston. We do know that several medicinal bottles in the collection date to the time of the school. Among the questions she’s addressing is who may have supplied and administered these medicines. I can’t wait to see what she finds!
In addition to the bottles with the sponges inside, there is one more artifact from the Smith School archeology collection that supports the idea that medical treatment at the school may have included ether inhalation. We have identified this thin, hollow, glass object as a pipette. How would one get ether from a storage bottle in the medicine kit to a small inhaler-bottle for treatment? A pipette like this would have done the job nicely.
One thing we love about working with archeology collections is that they never cease to stump, surprise, and educate us. I’ve been working with archeology collections from National Park Service sites for about fifteen years, and this was my first sponge in a bottle. Coming across these objects inspired me to look into the various ways children, adults, or both may have been managing pain or discomfort at the Abiel Smith School over a hundred and fifty years ago. Artifacts like these bring stories of people and places alive like nothing else can. We are lucky to be privy to these stories, and honored to share them with you.
The Abiel Smith School located at 46 Joy Street in Boston, now a National Historic Landmark and part of Boston African American NHS, is open to the public Monday through Saturday, 10AM to 4PM.
Eggleston, Lori. A Look Inside an Old Medicine Chest. September 11, 2014. Found online at: http://blog.fredericknewspost.com/blog/2014/09/11/guardian-of-the-artifacts/a-look-inside-an-old-medicine-chest/
Eger, Edmond I, II, Lawrence J. Saidman, and Rod N. Westhorpe, eds. The Wondrous Story of Anesthesia. New York: Springer, 2014.
Parker, Steve. Kill or Cure: An Illustrated History of Medicine. London: DK Publishing, 2013.
Snow, John. On the Inhalation of the Vapour of Ether. First published London, John Churchill, 1847. Accessed online at Wood Library Museum website.
The Ancestors of Inhalational Anesthesia: the Soporific Sponges (XIth – XVIIth Centuries). Anesthesiology 2000; 93: 265-9.
The Spasms of Hydrophobia Temporarily Relieved by the Inhalation of the Vapour of Sulphuric Ether. The Lancet, July 3, 1847.
Woodworth, Glenn, Shannon Sayers-Rana, Jeffrey Kirsch. The Anesthesia Technician and Technologist’s Manual. Philadelphia Lippincott Williams & Wilkins 2012.
Wood Library Museum of Anesthesiology Website. https://www.woodlibrarymuseum.org/
Science Museum Group London website: https://group.sciencemuseum.org.uk/