Many of the ingredients used in patent medicines were grown in the South, yet there were very few southern patent medicine manufacturers. In fact, the year 1865 was not yet over before a Charleston druggist was shipping north the roots of Southern plants for use in J.C. Ayer’s medicinal products. James Cook Ayer was a qualified doctor – a rarity among patent medicine manufacturers – who began to create his own line of patent medicines in the 1840s. His Lowell Massachusetts patent medicine business produced ‘remedies’ such as Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral and Ayer’s Cathartic Pills, both of which were recovered from the shipwreck.
Thirty-six bottles of Ayer’s Pills were recovered from the SS Republic wreck site, including a few rare examples with their original pea-sized tablets still intact—and remarkably undamaged. Trade cards from the 19th century for Ayer’s Cathartic Pills claimed that they contained only the purest vegetable ingredients, and noted they were coated with sugar to enhance their taste. The small tablets were designed to cure a host of ailments from flatulency, dizziness, and foul stomach to rheumatism, liver disorders, and kidney complaints. They were also touted as the best remedy for constipation and diarrhea.
The pills were first sold locally in wooden boxes from Ayer’s apothecary shop in Lowell, Massachusetts. They were later packed in sealed glass vials for export to hot and damp climates. For decades before the war, such products were frequently advertised in the Southern press, promoted especially to deal with illnesses common to slaves. With the country at peace in October 1865, Southern cities were once again a promising market for patent medicines produced in Northern states. By the time Ayer retired in the early 1870s, he had acquired a vast fortune from his patent medicine business. At his death in 1878, he was considered the wealthiest manufacturer of patent medicines in the country.