When smelling salts are mentioned, many of us will recall an image of a fashionable young lady in a costume drama swooning and being revived by someone using a bottle of smelling salts. This image is far from the whole picture, but is certainly based on fact. Smelling salts were indeed used in the Victorian age to revive women who had fainted and some police constables carried them for such use. Viewers of the TV show ‘Bargain Hunt’ may have seen silver vinaigrettes being auctioned. These were ornamental cases designed to hold a sponge soaked with smelling salts dissolved with perfume and vinegar or alcohol.

The use of smelling salts has been recorded since Roman times under such names as sal ammoniac, sal armonyak, spirit or salt of hartshorn and most commonly sal volatile. In addition to arousing people who had fainted, at one time it was widely used to revive people who had been dazed knocked unconscious, especially in sport.

The bottle shown here makes it clear that the more modern use is for the relief of symptoms of head colds and congestion caused by inflamed mucous membranes in the throat and head. The bottle states on the label that it is ‘Anti Catarrh’ and also relieves ‘cold in the head, hay fever, faintness and nervous headache’. The brand of smelling salts is ‘Dr Mackenzie’s’. It is doubtful that such a person existed as the origins of the brand can be traced to 1839 and one Arthur Hawker Cox, a chemist in Brighton.

Estimating the age of the featured bottle has proved extremely frustrating. The label shows the manufacturer was based at 93 Lewes Road, Brighton, which was the address of  Arthur H Cox & Co Ltd in 1910. However, adverts for Dr Mackenzie both before and after this time refer to a base in Reading. Some bottles have  London on the label. It could be that the brand was manufactured in more than one place at the same time. There was certainly a factory in Rustington, Sussex in the 1960s until 1976 when production was transferred to Barnstaple in Devon before the company was dissolved in 1999.

The original bottle shape is shown later, but the one we have here was of a shape introduced in 1934 designed to be flatter and easier to carry in a handbag. As late as 1936 the product was named ‘smelling bottle’, not ‘smelling salts’, the term that appears on the featured bottle. The contents of the bottle changed in the 1980s when phenol was omitted, but the way phenol, ammonia and eucalyptus oil are listed on the label of ‘our’ bottle seems older than in those produced in the 1960s. This indicates the bottle dates from the 1940s or 1950s. The label on the lid shows a price of 34p, which shows that the bottle was sold after decimalisation in 1971, but the condition of the bottle and all the other clues indicate that the bottle was sold as a collectable item long after the date of manufacture.

Although the original company was dissolved in 1999, the brand name did not disappear and bottles of Dr Mackenzie’s Smelling Salts are still readily available and warmly reviewed by modern users on the Amazon Website. The shape of the bottle is the same and the contents are still 17mls. The price is now nearly £8. The first bottles cost one shilling.

More information:

Date 1900s, 1940s, 1960s, 2010s
Material(s) GlassPlastic
Item number MBPO306

Questions to help you remember using this item

  • When have you used smelling salts?
  • Can you describe how it felt?
  • Have you ever carried a bottle of smelling salts in a handbag or in a first aid kit?
  • If you have a blocked nose, what products do you use to help you breathe?
  • Dr Mackenzie had a factory in Rustington, Sussex. Can you recall a comic song by Flanders and Swann that refers to Rustington-on-Sea?

User Stories

The shape of the original bottles is shown in these adverts from 1894 and 1929. Note the address given is in Reading.

The rounder, flatter bottle was introduced in 1934.

The latest re-incarnation of the brand retains the bottle shape.

The Dr Mackenzie brand originated in Victorian times.

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