Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Badger Liniment

For a change of pace lets drop in on some rather more recent archeology.

You may, or may not, have wondered why the revered mascot of the University of Wisconsin happens to be the mighty "Bucky Badger".  Well, in the early days of Wisconsin Territory "Badger" was a nickname for the settlers of this rugged frontier.  Here is how it came to pass.

The first real wave of settlement in these parts came in the 1840s when lead mining became a major "boom" in the southwest corner of the state.  There is still a miner on the Wisconsin state flag.  The miners were generally sorted into two groups.  Those who came up the river in the spring and went back down in the fall were called "Suckers" as their behaviour was reminiscent of the fish of that same name.  Most of these folk were commuting from Illinois, and the tradition of slightly impolite sounding nicknames for Illinois tourists is regrettably very much alive.

Those who decided to tough out the cold weather months often did so by simply digging a burrow into the hillside, or just using a played out mine pit as a primitive shelter.  They were by virtue of this dubbed "Badgers".

Once the nickname was widely accepted it was borrowed by many commercial enterprises.

Take for instance, Rork’s Badger Liniment.  This was a  minuscule rural medicine company that oddly had a very attractive embossed bottle with the titular Badger depicted on it.

James Rork was an early settler near Eau Claire.  I find first mention of him in association with the brief, comical “Indian Scare” that gripped Eau Claire in 1862 while the more serious Sioux Uprising was happening over in neighboring Minnesota.  I am afraid that Rork added to the panic a bit, riding in from his place north of town with news that he had seen smoke, perhaps from marauders setting fire to farmsteads.

Of his later years I have found little.  He was said to be a miller and farmer, and to be popular with his fellow rustics.  I have no idea why he decided in the early 1890s to get into patent medicines.

I have a copy of his United States patent, dated October 3, 1893, for a product called RORK’S Badger Liniment.  The application itself is a rather dry read, but does show a depiction of his trade mark.

Remarkably he spent the money to have this blown into his bottles.

These are rare.  I am aware three specimens, one of them badly chipped. They turn up infrequently in excavations of privvies and dump sites.

Rork passed away in 1900, which would seem to set an end date to this bottle.  I suspect that it was a small time product, probably put up on his farm and marketed with the assistance of one of the Eau Claire druggists.

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