Shock of the Old: 10 Scandalous Vintage Remedies From Asthma Cigarettes to Cocaine Wine

Tconfusion with patent medicines begins with the name, as they are rarely ever patented; the producers just thought it sounded cool. Bamboozling has always been part of the package: since the 17th century, concoctions of water, alcohol and herbs have been sold with wild claims and tales of exotic origins. In the 1630s, Anderson’s pills were pushed around with dubious claims that the recipe originated in Venice and that Anderson had close ties to the king. By the 18th century, there were liniments, wafers, gummies and tonics that confidently claimed to cure whatever ails you.

Indeed, the claim to cure everything from generalized weakness to chafing, malaise to weak stomach hair was the key to the success of patent medicines. Before anesthesia and antibiotics, the difference between a quack and a proper medicine was still blurred: why not buy into the seductive claims of an herbal remedy when your doctor threatens to let you bleed?

Mass production and the media complemented patent medicines in the late 19th century, especially in the United States, where they became big business. The advertising industry cut its teeth and developed its creativity on them: ads were everywhere, and traveling shows broadcast quack medicine live. Particularly popular were the attention-grabbing, color-printed trading cards that played wildly on fears and aspirations and confirmed prejudices. Women were portrayed as ethereal, frail simpletons (and unfeminine behavior such as opinion could be cured with the right elixir), and racist imagery, particularly of Native Americans, was used to make potions seem exotic, authentic, and ancient.

The cure was often worse than the disease. Many drugs are known to contain opiates and cocaine; they were also often aimed at children and babies and contained life-threatening percentages of alcohol. Coldens Liquid Beef Tonic advertised to treat alcoholism was 26.5% ABV; a similar product, Parker’s Tonic, advertised as purely herbal, was 41.6%. There is no reliable estimate of how many people, especially children, have been killed by patent medicines, but many seem to be a safe bet.

Patented drugs declined with the realization that the unregulated sale of cocaine and opiates could be a bad thing. The press was instrumental and profited from the success of the industry (half of advertising revenue was derived from commerce in the 19th century); journalists such as Samuel Hopkins Adams would hasten his downfall. His account of “The Great American Fraud” details scaremongering, false testimony and ineffective, deadly ingredients. Regulation followed in 1906 with the US Pure Food and Drug Act; The UK Pharmacy Act of 1908 limited the content of cocaine, morphine and opium to a measly 1%. Further, stricter regulation followed, and now only a few drugs survive in radically scaled-down versions, such as 7Up, now lithium-free.

Do any work? It contains very effective (excessive) opiate analgesia; Simpler formulas could be effective for indigestion or iron deficiency, and the placebo effect must have been powerful. A doctoral thesis on Georgian medicines argued that it is anachronistic to evaluate historical medicines with our modern understanding of ingredients and efficacy. Maybe so? It’s easy to sneer at the unscrupulous peddling of snake oil to the gullible, but who are we, in our era of horse-worm-covid cures and borax-drinking TikTokkers, to judge? Counter-argument: You really shouldn’t give opium to sleeping babies.

I need to get back to tinkering with Dr. Beddington’s tincture of moral degeneracy, so let’s dive in. Warning: side effects may include temporary blindness, hallucinations, and hairy werewolf palms.

Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup

1910 Mrs. Winslows Soothing Syrup.
Baby killer 1910 ad for Mrs. Winslows Soothing Syrup. Photo: Pictorial Press/Alamy

You can make an educated guess about the active ingredient in nurse Charlotte Winslow’s syrup just by looking into these babies’ eyes. Its 65 mg of morphine per ounce (plus alcohol) is believed to have been a significant cause of infant mortality. 1.5 million bottles were sold annually, according to an 1868 subpoena, and the American Medical Association condemned it as a baby killer in 1911. .

Pink pills for pale people

Dr. Williams Pink Pills for Pale People 1910.
Glow up Pink Pills for Pale People. Photo: Smith/Gado Collection/Getty Images

Pale-faced myself, I yearn to tread, rosy-cheeked, Through flowery meadows bearing the giant pipe Of my iron salvation; you don’t get that from Spatone Liquid Iron sachets that taste like rusty nails. There are many English-language adverts for Pink Pills, which were created in Canada in 1886 and sold in the UK until the 1970s, but this one is so full of art nouveau je ne sais quoi asked to be involved.

Cigarettes for asthma

Kelloggs Asthma Cigarettes
Cigarettes were essentially psychotropic drugs of the nightshade family, and Asthma Relief also contains lobelia and stramonium. Photo: Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Look, I know what you’re thinking, but what if I told you that asthma cigarettes contain antispasmodic ingredients like stramonium, which means they were basically like an old inhaler? Not yet? What if I told you that Proust was a fan? Oh, he was disabled for life and died at 51? Fair point.

Cure for hunting

A late 19th century medicine hunt ad
Hants Remedy has never been known to fail. Photo: Buyenlarge/Getty Images

This late 19th century trading card features a powerful satanic energy today: Death has chosen the wrong man in tiny pink shorts. Paint was one of the patent medicines of secret weapons, packaging colors were often touted as proof of authenticity, and advertisements were bright and detailed, and Hunts engaged to winning effect. They should put this picture on those fancy 8 match boxes; they sell like hot opium wafers.

Dr. Thomas Electric Oil

A late 19th century advertisement for Dr. Thomas Electric Oil.
Curiosity killed the cat in a 19th century advertisement for Dr Thomas Eclectic Oil. Photo: Bateman Archive

Nothing says science like a completely made up word (obviously capitalizing on the 19th century American fascination with electricity). Patent medicines were often marketed for animals as well as humans, and why not? One of my relatives shared anti-epileptics with the family doctor. Although this kitten looks pretty grim: alcohol, tinctures of chloroform of opium, and turpentine will do that, I suppose.

Ayers Age Lek

Ague Cure in the late 19th century
Fortunately, the medicine contains quinine. Photo: Hi-Story/Alamy

A sick alligator is given a bottle of Ague Cure by two worried-looking frogs, says Wellcome Collections’ invariable description of this ad. The Ague Cure boasts that it does not contain quinine, and unfortunately for the treatment of malaria. Fortunately, that was a lie: it contains quinine.

Hamlins Wizard Oil

Hamlins Wizard Oil Ad
Chaos in a Bottle Hamlins Wizard Oil. Photo: Alamy

This is attractive but confusing. The circus elephant stole the Wizard’s oil, okay, but why does someone paint the slogan on his back, and who are the well-dressed men with brass instruments? What’s happening on the roof? Admittedly, Hamlins was 50-70% alcohol plus ammonia and turpentine, so the world would probably look like this chaotic clown show if you drank it.

Extract from ponds ad
Ponds extract was one of the first commercial products containing witch hazel. Photo: Hi-Story/Alamy

More frog doctors, a recurring theme and welcome to patent medicine advertising. I would absolutely buy anything this very professional-looking duo creates, or would until a friend theorized it was their own back secretions.

Dr. McMunns

An advertisement for quinine as a medicine from the 1860s.
In liquid form and always ready to use, an 1860s ad for tonics based on quinine and opium. Photo: Bateman Archive

The vibe of this 1860s ad is very bad: the gray invalid with the deceased is a terrible advertisement for Dr McMunns products on her bedside table. She is being nursed by what looks like a Spanish monkey Christ in a crinoline, no wonder things are going badly and there are too many animals and children knocking around this apparent deathbed. Men outside pick quinine and cinchonine, the active ingredients; I’m afraid it’s a little late for that.

Vin Mariani

Endorsement of Mariani wine by Pope Leo XIII.
Suitable for Pope Mariani wine tonic. Photo: Smuggled Collection/Alamy

This isn’t just cocaine wine; this is cocaine wine approved by the Pope. Leo XIII lived to be 93 thanks, probably, to a flask of Vin Mariani tonic wine (the tonic was 6 mg of coca leaf). Mariani was way ahead of his time, marketing-wise: he sent samples to celebrities asking for testimonials, which he then published. Wine influencers included Presidents William McKinley and Ulysses S. Grant and Pius X: yes, that’s two popes and two presidents. Shapo.

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