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15 Curious Quack Remedies From the Age of Patent Medicine

Traveling salesmen and pharmacies packed with colorful bottles claimed to have all the medical cures for what ailed you in the 19th century, although the contents of their remedies were more likely to be opiates or snake oil than any scientifically sound healing. The era of patent medicine—which stretched from the 17th into the 20th century and was especially prolific in the United States and England—was a response to the shortcomings of medicine at the time, which often relied on questionable treatments like bloodletting and purging. The patent in the name didn’t refer to any government approval, but proprietary concoctions marketed with extreme promises and flamboyant showmanship.

Brimming with alcohol, opium, cocaine, and other unregulated substances, it’s no surprise their users felt like the pills and tonics were doing something, even if they became addictive or, worse, fatal. Federal regulations eventually cut off this free trade of drugs, as did exposés like a 1906 issue of Collier’s that depicted the industry as “death’s laboratory” with an illustration of patent medicine being pumped out of a skull flanked by moneybags. Nevertheless, you can still find popular treatments like Sloan’s Liniment and Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound nestled in the drugstore, survivors from the golden age of quackery.

1. OPIUM

Opiates were readily available as painkillers, and also marketed for all sorts of woes, even the treatment of children’s coughs and colds or just to keep fussy babies quiet. McMunn's Elixir of Opium [PDF] was developed in the 1830s by John B. McMunn in New York, who mixed it with alcohol and advertised the result for "nervous irritability" as well as rabies and tetanus. Meanwhile shoemaker Perry Davis [PDF] manufactured his opium-based cures for cholera and other infectious diseases, the benign bottle boasting the medicine was "purely vegetable" and "no family should be without it."

2. BLOOD

The consumption of blood is not itself an oddity, and became part of the tonic offerings in patent medicine through manufacturers like the Bovinine Company in Chicago. A truly unsettling 1890 ad for Bovinine shows a woman with her eyes closed, a small glass of red liquid beside her, and the words: "Look on me in my lassitude reclining / My nerveless body languid, pale and lean; / Now hold me up to where the light is shining / And mark the magic power of BOVININE."

When the postcard is held up to a light, suddenly her eyes open and a ghostly steer appears outside the window with the words “My life was saved by Bovinine.” And the drug probably was quite eye opening, being a tantalizing and alcoholic mix of beef blood, glycerine, and sodium chloride (salt).

3. COCAINE

Allen's Cocaine Tablets for Hay Fever, Catarrh, and Throat Troubles 

Famously, Coca-Cola was named for one of its more shocking 1880s ingredients: coca leaves. It's unclear exactly how heavy the cocaine dose was in the soda, then marketed as a “brain tonic,” and it was among many medicinals that included coca leaves in their brews. The drug was legal until 1914. In 1890, you could pick up Allen's Cocaine Tablets for your hay fever, "throat troubles," or headache at 50 cents a box, and in the early 1900s both Ernest Shackleton and Robert F. Scott carried "Forced March" cocaine and caffeine pills for endurance on their Antarctic expeditions.

4. PRAIRIE FLOWERS AND INDIAN OIL

Being an Englishman from Yorkshire didn’t stop William Henry Hartley from adopting an eccentric Buffalo Bill-like persona to sell his Sequah's Prairie Flower and Sequah's Oil, cures supposedly based on Native American traditions. The evocation of the exotic and indigenous in advertising was prominent in patent medicine, although almost always completely fictional. Hartley, who operated his Sequah Medicine Company in the UK between 1887 and 1890, was one of the more bombastic personas in this appropriation, with a Wild West-styled circus that rolled into town. The show would start after dark, with teeth pulled to the music of a brass band (playing loud, to drown out noises of pain) to draw in the crowd. On more atmospheric evenings, there were even séances. All this pomp was aimed at selling Hartley’s Prairie Flower and “Indian oil” cures for a variety of ailments, like stomach issues and liver disorders. Later the ingredients were revealed to be organic material from the East Indies and cheap fish oil cut with turpentine.

5. PETROLEUM

Petroleum jelly is still a common part of our medicine cabinets, but in the 19th century oil was marketed as a treatment for everything from ulcers to blindness. Samuel Kier in Pennsylvania was trying to use up the incredible amount of oil created by his salt wells, and in 1852 launched his "Kier’s Petroleum, or Rock Oil" as a 50-cent cure-all. It likely was potent, as he later distilled the same petroleum and successfully sold it as a lighter fluid.

6. CANNABIS

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Cannabis appeared in Western medicine through William O'Shaughnessy's studies with the British East India Company in the 1830s; he saw it as an effective prescription for pain. Soon patent medicine was getting in on the action, selling it as a cure-all. For instance, Piso's Tablets were advertised for "women's ailments," and contained a punchy mix of cannabis and chloroform.

7. TOMATOES

"Tomato Pills Cure Your Ills" crowed the ads for Dr. Miles Compound Extract of Tomato. Before ketchup took off as a condiment, people were ingesting tomato pills for remedies for all sorts of illness. Others like John Cook Bennett, a physician in Ohio, also proclaimed the benefits of tomatoes to treat stomach issues like diarrhea and indigestion. It's likely the lycopene in the tomatoes actually did some good, and eventually the vegetable that was once nicknamed the "poison apple" in the 18th century was on its way to 20th-century popularity.

8. ARSENIC

Arsenic was long used in traditional Chinese medicine, as well as a Victorian cosmetic. Patent medicines regularly incorporated the poison, with or without the user’s knowledge. Mercury and lead were also sometimes present in the more toxic remedies, and both arsenic and mercury would be used to treat syphilis. Pharmacy offerings, like Fowler’s Solution, proposed arsenic as a tonic and treatment for ailments like leukemia and malaria, while Donovan's Solution was advertised for skin diseases, and "Tabloid" had arsenic mixed with iron for heart conditions.

9. HAIR TONICS

Hair tonics were big business for patent medicine purveyors, promising to stop grayness, dandruff, and regrow lost locks. Ingredients included lead, borax, cochineal (smashed red insects), silver nitrate, arsenic, and heavy doses of alcohol. Not surprisingly, these tonics were popular during Prohibition in the United States, packing the same boozy bang as a shot of whiskey. And having about the same effect on hair loss.

10. RADIOACTIVE SUBSTANCES

Sam L., via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Radioactive solutions emerged in the early 20th century after radioactive decay was identified in 1896. One of the more infamous of these was Radithor, a patent medicine with distilled radium, made by self-proclaimed doctor William Bailey, who had previously sold strychnine as an aphrodisiac.

Socialite and industrialist Eben Byers took Radithor following an arm injury in 1927, and continued consuming it through the 1930s, when he slowly died a grotesque death involving snapping bones and lost teeth. Byers's demise prompted an investigation into Radithor, and ultimately its removal from pharmacies, although poor Byers was buried in a lead coffin due to the contained radiation in his body. As a 1932 Wall Street Journal article quipped: "The Radium Water Worked Fine Until His Jaw Came Off."

11. MERCURY

Victorians were fanatics for pallid skin, and freckle removers were marketed to this obsession. Some of these products included mercury, such as Dr. Berry's Freckle Ointment made in Chicago. Amelia Earhart was known to detest her freckles, so when a pot of the poisonous cream was found on the Pacific island of Nikumaroro, many believed it was a sign of the lost aviator's crash.

12. OBESITY BATH POWDER

If a hot bath with the right powder could reduce obesity, humans would have evolved gills by now. Sadly, remedies like "Healthone-Obesity Bath Powder" were all quackery. The pitch was that soaking with the powder a couple times a day would take the extra pounds away. Examining the powder revealed it was mostly perfumed sodium carbonate, which probably did make for a mineral-feeling soak.

13. SWAMP ROOT

 
Swamp root doesn’t sound like something you’d want to ingest, yet it was wildly popular as an advertised ingredient in patent medicine. Products like Dr. Kilmer's Swamp Root were said to "promote the flow of urine,” as well as treat invented illnesses like "internal slime fever" [PDF]. Whatever organic material it contained, like so many patent medicines, it seems the most active ingredient was alcohol.

14. DR PEPPER

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Like Coca-Cola, Dr Pepper has its roots in patent medicine. The drink was created in 1885 by a Texas pharmacist named Charles Alderton, and sold as a "brain tonic." The period after "Dr" was reportedly later removed during its 20th-century mass marketing in order to not suggest any medicinal properties.

15. PINK PILLS FOR PALE PEOPLE

Wellcome Images, via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

 
Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People were among the treatments aimed at anemia, with the alliteration intended to catch the attention of customers—particularly British colonists. Made of iron oxide and magnesium sulfate, they certainly weren’t among the most dangerous of patent medicines, but they far from fulfilled their promise of curing everything from paralysis to cholera. George Fulford, who sold the remedy around the world, is often remembered for quite a different legacy. His vehicle was hit by a streetcar in 1905, and at the age of 53 he became Canada's first automobile death.

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15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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18 Tea Infusers to Make Teatime More Exciting
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Make steeping tea more fun with these quirky tea infusers.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

1. SOAKING IT UP; $7.49

man-shaped tea infuser
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That mug of hot water might eventually be a drink for you, but first it’s a hot bath for your new friend, who has special pants filled with tea.

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2. A FLYING TEA BOX; $25.98

There’s no superlaser on this Death Star, just tea.

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3. SPACE STATION; $9.99

astronaut tea infuser
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This astronaut's mission? Orbit the rim of your mug until you're ready to pull the space station diffuser out.

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4. BE REFINED; $12.99

This pipe works best with Earl Grey.

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5. A RIBBITING OPTION; $10.93

This frog hangs on to the side of your mug with a retractable tongue. When the tea is ready, you can put him back on his lily pad.

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6. ‘TEA’ ALL LIVE IN A YELLOW SUBMARINE; $5.95

It’s just like the movie, only with tea instead of Beatles.

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7. SHARK ATTACK; $6.99

shark tea infuser
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This fearsome shark patrols the bottom of your mug waiting for prey. For extra fun, use red tea to look like the end of a feeding frenzy.

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8. PERFECT FOR A RAINY DAY; $12.40

This umbrella’s handle conveniently hooks to the side of your mug.

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9. AN EGGCELLENT INFUSER; $5.75

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Sometimes infusers are called tea eggs, and this one takes the term to a new, literal level.

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10. FOR SQUIRRELY DRINKERS; $8.95

If you’re all right with a rodent dunking its tail into your drink, this is the infuser for you.

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11. HANGING OUT; $12.85

This pug is happy to hang onto your mug and keep you company while you wait for the tea to be ready.

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12. ANOTHER SHARK OPTION; $5.99

If you thought letting that other shark infuser swim around in the deep water of your glass was too scary, this one perches on the edge, too busy comping on your mug to worry about humans.

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13. RUBBER DUCKIE, YOU’RE THE ONE; $8.95

Let this rubber duckie peacefully float in your cup and make teatime lots of fun.

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14. DIVING DEEP; $8.25

This old-timey deep-sea diver comes with an oxygen tank that you can use to pull it out.

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15. MAKE SWEET TEA; $10

This lollipop won't actually make your tea any sweeter, but you can always add some sugar after.

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16. A SEASONAL FAVORITE; $7.67

When Santa comes, give him some tea to go with the cookies.

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17. FLORAL TEA; $14.99

Liven up any cup of tea with this charming flower. When you’re done, you can pop it right back into its pot.

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18. KEEP IT TRADITIONAL; $7.97

If you’re nostalgic for the regular kind of tea bag, you can get reusable silicon ones that look almost the same.

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