Over 300 years ago, in 1696, Claes Tilly created “Genuine Haarlem Oil”.
In spite of very little promotion or advertising, it continues to exist as a family-run business up until the present day.
Its famous reputation was mostly established by word of mouth and people continue to acknowledge its healing and purifying properties enthusiastically: this in itself is quite unique!
Meanwhile the use of Haarlem Oil has spread all over the world and bottles can be found in all four corners of the world. Haarlem Oil is especially beneficial for the healing of wounds, it works as a desinfectant and is beneficial for both kidney and urinary tract.
Genuine Haarlem Oil is sold in pharmacies and drugstores, it is available in dropper bottles and can still be administered ‘the old fashioned way’: by putting drops on a lump of sugar. It is also sold in taste- and odour-free capsules.
Obviously the formula, invented by Claes Tilly, is still a carefully guarded family secret. Today the more than three-century-old family business of this wondrous remedy is owned by Ruud van Dobben, the 11th successor of Claes Tilly and a direct descendant. In 1935 his father succeeded his grandfather.
Claes Tilly, a teacher from the town of Leiden, was living in Haarlem at the end of the 17th century. Being a literary scolar, he had knowledge of Greek and Latin and
was familiar with the publications of great scolars such as Paracelsus. He also practised the art of alchemy.
Around the year 1696, after the necessary tests which initially failed and occasionally
caused an explosion, Claes discovered how to create unlimited shelf life (= stability)
for the natural resin of the ‘Terebinth tree’ by processing it with sulphur (in the healing
arts both substances were and are also separately renowned for their healing and
The healing effects of Terebinth Oil was known in ancient times, unfortunately air and light exposure created some unpleasant side effects, making the drug itself worse than the disease.
Therefore this was a very important invention, especially in a time when there was no other way to adress many ailments. In those days for example, a surgical procedure to remove kidney and bladder stones was a popular public attraction.
In the brochure below, according to a descendant from 1792, it shows that Boerhaave was positively familiar with the product:
(Herman Boerhaave, (31 december 1668 -23 september 1738) was a Dutch botanist, Christian humanist and physician of European fame. He is considered to be the founder of clinical teaching and of the modern academic hospital. He, along with his pupil Albrecht von Haller, is sometimes referred to as ‘the father of physiology’. He is best known for demonstrating the relationship betweens symptoms and lesions and, in addition, was the first to isolate the chemical urea from urine. His motto was “Simplex sigillum veri; Simplicity is the sigh of truth”.)
O M S T A N D I G B E R I G T
van het worden en ontworden des
S T E E N S en G R A V E E L S
in ons, en veelerhande Qualen;
Als mede eenige Gevallen onder het
gebruyk van het
MEDICAMENTUM GRATIA PROBATUM.
This old 17th century medicine manual (available from the municipal archives of Haarlem) has an extensive anthology showing in which cases the drug was prescribed. The product was and is still sold in small bottles.
In the early days they were sealed with pieces of a pig’s bladder, a little pinhole was made to allow a drip dose. After that the pin was used to close the bottle.
Links: A century of bottles from the left tot the right with pig’s bladder tops to the modern ones with the screw top on the right.
The last generation of faithful users who are still alive and very elderly, were traditionally taught by family elders when and for which purposes Haarlem Oil could be
Haarlem Oil is especially beneficial for the healing of wounds, works as a desinfectant and is effective in helping the kidney and urinary system function well.
Actually the word Oil is not quite right, since it is actually not an oil, more a sort of a light brown liquid with a specific smell. At the time of the invention, however, everything that was not water, milk or alcohol was called oil. Despite the abundance of available modern medicine, all coming with large-scale promotion and advertising; it is still a very popular home-remedy that should not be lacking in the medicine cabinet.
In spite of the fact that very little effort was ever made for advertising campaigns ‘Genuine Haarlem Oil’ has continued to exist for over 300 years!
In 1996 a beautiful celebratory poster was issued in Art Nouveau style to mark the 300th anniversary of Haarlem Oil. This poster is still available by request.
It has always been the goal of the inventor and his successors to implement a price policy in which the least wealthy could also obtain this medicine for a few ‘stuyvers’ (the stuyver was a pre-decimal coin used in the Netherlands). Even though the value of money has changed, the mindset that the producer ought not to enrich himself at the expense of ‘leydenden’ (those who suffer) has not.
MY MEDICINE IS NO GOOD TO ANYONE WHO DO NOT RESPECT MEDICINES
THAT ARE AFFORDABLE AND ONLY TRUST EXPENSIVE PRODUCTS.
MY MEDICINE IS NO GOOD TO ANYONE WHO ONLY WANT MEDICINE THAT
TASTES PLEASANT AND SMELLS GOOD..
Haarlem Oil is one of the ten oldest family businesses in the Netherlands and potentially in Europe. Its famous reputation was established almost entirely by word of mouth. In spite of its unpleasant taste and odour people continue to use it with enthusiasm and are still convinced of its healing and purifying effects. It is quite unique in today’s world that over three centuries this attitude has not changed!
For obvious reasons the formula is still a carefully guarded family secret.
Distribution of Haarlem Oil
The reputation of Haarlem Oil spread like oil on water::
Through merchant shipping and fisheries (in the ships’ medicine chest). This explains its reputation in the Baltic Sea region and Novaya Zemlya and why bottles were even found on Smeerenburg.
Through exploration: Dr.Melchior, gynaecologist and explorer from Haarlem found a panther skin and a bottle of Haarlem Oil inside an Indian hut in South America, as described in his book ‘Amazonas, hell and paradise’.
Through trade, but also very much by the Christian missionaries. At first they took it with them for personal use, but later on they started using it in areas where they were employed to serve the population.
Without exaggeration we can say that our reputation at one point stretched from Novaya Zemlya to Tierra del Fuego, which has also put the city of Haarlem on the world map.
Because Haarlem Oil has been successfully been around for centuries the expression ‘Haarlem Oil” is used in many proverbs in the Dutch language.
In the last century, before the internet, frequently letters would arrive with only the name ‘Haarlem Oil’ or C. de Koning Tilly on the envelope and no further mentioning of town or country. One foreign address label (correctly delivered) read:
Keep moisture free,
The success of Haarlem Oil
The reputation of Haarlem Oil is evident by the awards it received: gold at 3 world exhibitions: London (1907), Paris (1907) and Rome (1910)
Soon inevitable counterfeiters appeared, who wanted to benefit from the success. They made a brew and then placed the name ‘Tilly’ behind their name or added the name ‘Haarlem’.
At one time E.L.W. van Dobben, grandfather of the current owner, had leaked a false formula, which stated one of the ingredients was linseed oil. However the original Genuine Haarlem Oil does not contain linseed oil. As mentioned before, it’s not an oil but rather a balm, and certainly not castor oil.
Until the 20th century this copying was done, but all were successfully contested through numerous lawsuits. Names of counterfeiters, some went above and beyond in their efforts:
- Claes Tilly Laboratoires Thomas Tilly (to date, elsewhere)
- Wed. Claas Tilly
- G. de Koning Tilly
- Marseille Tilly
- Erdsieck Tilly
- Jan Boogaard Tilly
- Fa. Brothers Waaning Tilly (until the mid 20th century)
- Samuel Frank (copied the bottles as well as the oil, and also Eau de Cologne)
- N.V. The Genuine Haarlem Oil Factory (the above mentioned Samuel Frank, established in the same street, directly opposite the company and who waited for the postman to bribe him into getting hold of the orders!)
ONLY THE REAL BOTTLES HAVE ‘C. DE KONING TILLY’ IMPRINTED ON THEM.