019The Bottles, The Bitters and The Brandy, Gates modern medicine. A brief history of C Gates, Son & Co. Limited, Middleton, N.S. is shared by pharmacy history enthusiast Michael Fairn.Michael Fairn

The following post  is based on a presentation made to the Annapolis Valley Historical Society by Michael Fairn  in the mid-1990’s.  Michael has considerable interest  in local history, including, but not limited to Middleton and area. He has done a great deal of genealogical research into the Fairn and Kaulbach and Phinney families.  You’ll soon be able to learn more in this regard on Michael’s website at:


I had initially entitled this article  “THE MAN, THE MOUNTAIN, AND THE MEDICINES” referring, obviously to Caleb Gates, Gates’ Mountain (where he lived), and the medicines his company produced.

However, as I worked on the piece, another title became more obvious…


THE BOTTLES:  After a review of the history of the C. Gates and Son Co., I will discuss my collection of Gates’ bottles and memorabilia.

THE BITTERS:  Perhaps the most famous of the Gates’ products was their LIFE OF MAN BITTERS.  We’ll discuss the variety of other medicines produced, as well.

AND THE BRANDY:  Well, we’ll get to that!

I’m not sure what first piqued my interest in the history of the Gates’ company and the bottle collection.  But it goes back to my interest in the collection of pharmacy memorabilia that Dad (George Fairn, Pharmacist) started many years ago. As I tried to expand the collection while I was working at Valley Drug Mart in Middleton, I soon realized that there was no end to what a person could accumulate in pharmacy treasures.  I realized I had to narrow my focus.

And because I live in Middleton (at least most of the time), what better opportunity to preserve a valuable piece of Middleton’s history?!  Speaking of history, let’s start with a brief history of the firm C. GATES, SON AND COMPANY, LIMITED.

Let’s go back 155 years –to the summer of 1840.  As Snoopy in the Peanuts(c) cartoon is fond of saying:  “It was a dark and stormy night!”  An elderly French doctor was traveling from the Middleton area (then known as Gates’ Ferry), to Port George (then known as Gates’ Breakwater) to book passage home on a French ship that was loading there.

As the storm worsened, the doctor decided to seek refuge at the home of Oldham Gates, Jr. on the Gates’ Mountain.  I understand this is the house, more recently known as the Carpenter place, on the Lily Lake Rd.

The doctor was welcomed into the Gates’ home.  While he was there, he learned that Mrs. Gates had been ill for some time.  He asked Mr. Gates’ permission to make some medicine which he thought might help Mrs. Gates.  The next morning, Caleb Gates—the young son of Mr. and Mrs. Gates, and the doctor went into the woods to search for certain herbs and roots.

The doctor prepared several medicines and treated Mrs. Gates with them, until her recovery.  Before he left, the doctor gave Mrs. Gates the recipes for the medicines.  In time, Mrs. Gates began to prepare these medicines for her neighbors.  Very quickly, the demand became so great  that Mrs. Gates decided to start selling the medicines.

When her son, Caleb, became old enough, he joined with his mother to found a full-fledged medicine company– C. Gates & Co., located in Victoria Vale.

About 1865, the firm began advertising for the first time.  The first ad appeared in the Western News, published in Bridgetown – one of the first newspapers in Nova Scotia.

In 1877, the medicines were copyrighted to protect the company from  imitations.  At this point, Caleb’s son, Andreas (whose nickname strangely enough, was ‘Ginnie’), joined his father in the business and the company name was changed to C. Gates, Son & Co. Caleb died in 1887 and Andreas continued to build the firm to the point where he had to relinquish management of the herb farms to provide him more time for the medicine business.

As early as 1866, Gates’ medicines won international recognition at the Indian and Colonial Exposition in London.  In 1891, they received a Certificate of Honour at the International Exhibition in Jamaica.

An 1894 business directory for the town of Middleton reported that fourteen tons of Gates’ products were shipped the previous year to NS, NB, and PEI markets.  Also, the firm found a ready acceptance of their new lines of ‘Acadian Liniment’ and ‘Nerve Ointment’.017

About 1900, Andreas and his family moved the family business to a three storey building at the head of Gates Avenue.  The business was now at its peak production level.  Large quantities of product were being manufactured and several salesmen were traveling Nova Scotia in horse-drawn “medicine wagons”, carrying product and sample cases.

Distribution of the firm’s product line was later continued by the National Drug Company warehouses in Saint John and Halifax.  National Drug was the forerunner of what is now the country’s largest drug wholesaler, McKesson.

In 1918, the business suffered a serious setback when new Federal Health Laws, passed by the Canadian Government, prohibited the sale of Life of Man Bitters.

So, you’re asking why this product could no longer be sold in stores at this time??  I’m not going to tell you just yet, but suffice it to say, sales did continue on, shall we say, a “bootleg” basis.  The formulation was changed sometime thereafter so that sales of the product could continue legally.

Andreas Gates continued with the prospering business until his death in 1944.  At that time, the business was put up for sale by the family.  It was purchased by Mr. Fairfield Woodbury, whom many in Middleton would remember even now.  Mr. George Vye and Mr. Art Steele also became involved in the business at this time, although their stays were rather short-lived, I understand.  Mr. Woodbury was responsible for sales promotion, while Mr. Vye and Mr. Steele ran the manufacturing and business aspects, respectively.

On January 25, 1946, fire completely destroyed the building housing the Gates factory.  Fairfield completely rebuilt a combination of house and factory on the same location—at the NW corner of Gates Ave. and Marshall St.  The manufacturing room was located in the basement; the ground floor contained the office and the shipping department.

The business lasted only four more years.  In 1949, with the passing of the federal Patent Medicines Act, the company ceased to be viable.  Certain Check had to be taken off the market because it contained a narcotic.  Other formulations had to be modified.  Changes were required to some of the time-honored names.  All of these factors combined to mark the demise of the firm, and 110 years after its founding, C. Gates and Co. closed its doors in 1950.



The firm produced 9 different products:

  1.                                                              LIFE OF MAN BITTERS
  2.                                                              INVIGORATING SYRUP004
  3.                                                              CERTAIN CHECK
  4.                                                              ACADIAN LINIMENT
  5.                                                              LITTLE GEM PILLS
  6.                                                              NERVE OINTMENT
  7.                                                              EYE RELIEF
  8.                                                              VEGETABLE PLASTER
  9.                                                              EMPIRE LINIMENT


The first eight were from the French doctor’s recipes and the firm purchased the Empire Liniment Company of Bridgetown at some point and took over their manufacturing operations.

Perhaps the most significant and widely known of the product line is LIFE OF MAN BITTERS.  So a note on Bitters in general will provide us with an insight into the nature of the patent and proprietary industry and how it initially developed.

Bitters seems to have originated in 17th century Germany.  From there, it spread to Italy and England. During the reign of King George II (1727-1760), he decided that his people were drinking too much gin.  Thus, he decided to tax the sale of gin and restrict the number of pubs.

The gin sellers started adding various herbs to their product and sold it as a medicinal liquor, calling their product Bitters, Coltick Water, and Gripe Water.010

Because of the taxes on gin, rum, and brandy in Colonial America, bitters gained widespread popularity here as well.  And, after the Revenue Act of 1862, which taxed proprietary medicines at a much lower rate than liquors, the popularity of Bitters climbed rapidly.  This explains why the vast majority of collectible bitters bottles were produced between 1860 and 1900.

So, now we see the reason for the mention of brandy in my title for this article!!

And also, I suspect, how Andreas Gates got his nickname “Ginnie”!

In fact, the percentage of alcohol in the various brands of bitters in the late 1800’s was often quite high – ranging from 59.1% in Richardson’s Bitters to 16.7% in Luther’s Temperance Bitters.  (That’s quite a contradiction in terms – Temperance Bitters!!)  By comparison, if you went to the Liquor Commission today and bought a bottle of gin, rum, etc., it would contain at least 40% alcohol.  No wonder Gates’ Life of Man Bitters was so popular!

Be this as it may, you cannot deny the true medicinal value of the Gates’ products, despite some of the preposterous claims of cures made on the products’ labels.  001

The medicinal value of herbs, roots, gums, etc. has long been known to mankind and used successfully for centuries!  For example,

  1.  Aspirin is derived from the bark of willow trees.
  2. Penicillin is derived from bread mold.
  3. Cocaine, initially used as pain reliever, is derived from the coca plant.

At least half of all prescriptions filled contain active ingredients of natural origin. So, while I have made reference to the ‘iffy’ or ‘controversial’ side of the various medications, I am not denying the valid therapeutic value of them.

Let’s look at each of the products in a little more detail:


-Main ingredients were: 1) Juniper berries, a diuretic helpful in bladder, kidney, and urinary problems.  2) Balm of Gilead , which promotes perspiration, decreases fever, and relieves flatulence.  3) Dandelion root is a mild laxative and diuretic.  4) Yellow dock root, which has antiseptic and astringent qualities (but I’m not sure how drinking it would help a skin condition?!)


-Main ingredient was sarsaparilla, which has long been deemed a blood purifier but I was not able to determine medical support for this action.


-Main ingredients were camphor, a topical pain reliever, and Balm of Gilead, which, when applied  externally, tends to reduce inflammation.

4.         LITTLE GEM PILLS008

-Main ingredient was hyoscyamus which does have a slight sedative or relaxing effect on some body functions.


-Supposedly good for man or beast but I was unable to determine its active ingredients.

6.         CERTAIN CHECK

-Its use as a cure for dysentery, which is characterized by diarrhea, is not surprising.  Its main ingredient was an opium derivative containing morphine, which can cause constipation

I was unable to find any information on EYE RELIEF,  ACADIAN LINIMENT,  and VEGETABLE PLASTER.

The products were highly recommended, as we can see from a variety of testimonials in local papers and letters to the company.

I have accumulated over the past few years a large number of the various types of bottles from a variety of time periods.  The oldest one dates back to the period between 1840 – 1860.  The bottle collection numbers in excess of 200 now – ranging in value from about $10 to, well, I’d rather not say.  It is interesting to note that the value is more-so determined by the bottle itself—its age, its color, or its style of manufacture rather that the fact that it is a GATES’ bottle.  Also, there are many wrappers, shipping packages, etc. in my collection.

But the most prized item in the collection I have made reference to earlier is a salesman’s sample case.014

As near as I can determine, it is the only one in existence!

This article has taken a quick look at the history of the C. Gates & Co. Ltd. from its founding in 1840 to its demise in 1950.  We have looked briefly at the history of that class of patent medicines knows as Bitters. We have looked at some of the variety of products, and their active (and inactive) ingredients. And I have made reference to the breadth of the collection of Gates Bottles and memorabilia.

I hope you have enjoyed learning a little something about a very important chapter in the history of Middleton, Nova Scotia.  I have certainly enjoyed sharing this information with you because of the great interest I have in this subject.

But, there are some gaps to be filled.  Perhaps you can help me.  If any of you have any information on this topic, beyond what I have covered here, I would certainly appreciate hearing from you.  There is one piece of the firm’s history that I have yet to see—the recipes.  I know they exist and I know where they are.  I do hope, at some time, to be able to see them.

Also, I have read a detailed description of the plaque that was awarded to the firm at the Exposition in London.  Does it still exist?  I suspect it was lost in the fire of 1946, but that it is only a guess.


The above information has been drawn from sources too numerous to mention, but include, in part:  Sally Bell (nee Elliott), pharmacist in London, Ontario; the late Leonie Cumming, former teacher in Middleton; bottle collector Bill Ryan of Middleton; my father, retired pharmacist  George Fairn of Nictaux,  and many others.  My sincere thanks to each and every one of you.

Gates 1


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