Jack McQuesten invented the sourdough thermometer that became famous all through the North in the early 1880s.
He developed the idea during the start of the Fortymile gold camp.
The thermometer consisted of a row of four bottles, each containing either quicksilver, coal oil, an extract of Jamaica ginger or Perry Davis’ Painkiller.
They would be placed outside the cabin in a location where they could be seen from the window. If the mercury froze, it was nearly 40 degrees below zero.
The coal oil froze at minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The ginger at minus 60 degrees. And, if the painkiller froze too, it was unsafe to travel very far from a fire because the temperature was then as low as 70 degrees below zero.
A popular medicine in those days, Perry Davis’ Painkiller turned white at minus 60 degrees, crystallized at minus 70 and froze solid at minus 75.
Most stayed home when the mercury (quicksilver) froze. It was an effective way of gauging the cold in the remote north country where thermometers were few, or nonexistent.
Laura Beatrice Berton, travelling from Whitehorse to Dawson in winter by stage, noticed painkiller bottles set outside roadhouse windows as thermometers.
The stage driver would not leave the roadhouse if the painkiller had frozen to slush.
The following is a comment by “Stroller” White, an early Dawson and Whitehorse newspaper writer and columnist, regarding Perry Davis’ painkiller and ice worms:
“Where Perry Davis’ Painkiller has remained frozen for a period of seven weeks at a time, ice worms have been known to attain a growth of 27 inches. These are much sought after by the Indians who eat them raw with Snyder’s Ketchup.” (Dawson Weekly News, October 15, 1909.)
Anyone with information about this subject, please write Jim Robb: The Colourful Five Per Cent Scrapbook—Can You Identify? c/o the Yukon News, 211 Wood Street, Whitehorse, Yukon, Y1A 2E4, or e-mail through the News website, www.yukon-news.com.