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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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The Origins of 5 International Food Staples

Food is more than fuel. Cuisine and culture are so thoroughly intertwined that many people automatically equate tomatoes with Italy and potatoes with Ireland. Yet a thousand years ago those dietary staples were unheard of in Europe. How did they get to be so ubiquitous there—and beyond?

1. TOMATOES

For years, the wonderful fruit that’s now synonymous with Italy was mostly ignored there. Native to South America and likely cultivated in Central America, tomatoes were introduced to Italy by Spanish explorers during the 1500s. Shortly thereafter, widespread misconceptions about the newcomers took root. In part due to their watery complexion, it was inaccurately thought that eating tomatoes could cause severe digestive problems. Before the 18th century, the plants were mainly cultivated for ornamental purposes. Tomato-based sauce recipes wouldn’t start appearing in present-day Italy until 1692 (although even those recipes were more like a salsa or relish than a sauce). Over the next 150 years, tomato products slowly spread throughout the peninsula, thanks in no small part to the agreeable Mediterranean climate. By 1773, some cooks had taken to stuffing tomatoes with rice or veal. In Naples, the fruits were sometimes chopped up and placed onto flatbread—the beginnings of modern pizza. But what turned the humble tomato into a national icon was the canning industry. Within Italy’s borders, this business took off in a big way during the mid-to-late 19th century. Because tomatoes do well stored inside metal containers, canning companies dramatically drove up the demand. The popularity of canned tomatoes was later solidified by immigrants who came to the United States from Italy during the early 20th century: Longing for Mediterranean ingredients, transplanted families created a huge market for Italian-grown tomatoes in the US.

2. CURRY

Bowl of chicken curry with a spoon in it

An international favorite, curry is beloved in both India and the British Isles, not to mention the United States. And it turns out humans may have been enjoying the stuff for a very, very long time. The word “curry” was coined by European colonists and is something of an umbrella term. In Tamil, a language primarily found in India and Sri Lanka, “kari” means “sauce.” When Europeans started traveling to India, the term was eventually modified into “curry,” which came to designate any number of spicy foods with South or Southeast Asian origins. Nonetheless, a great number of curry dishes share two popular components: turmeric and ginger. In 2012, traces of both were discovered inside residue caked onto pots and human teeth at a 4500-year-old archaeological site in northern India. And where there’s curry, there’s usually garlic: A carbonized clove of this plant was also spotted nearby. “We don’t know they were putting all of them together in a dish, but we know that they were eating them at least individually,” Steve Weber, one of the archaeologists who helped make this astonishing find, told The Columbian. He and his colleagues have tentatively described their discovery as "proto-curry."

3. THE BAGUETTE

Several baguettes

A quintessential Gallic food, baguettes are adored throughout France, where residents gobble up an estimated 10 billion every year. The name of the iconic bread ultimately comes from the Latin word for stick, baculum, and references its long, slender form. How the baguette got that signature shape is a mystery. One popular yarn credits Napoleon Bonaparte: Supposedly, the military leader asked French bakers to devise a new type of skinny bread loaf that could be comfortably tucked into his soldiers’ pockets. Another origin story involves the Paris metro, built in the 19th century by a team of around 3500 workers who were apparently sometimes prone to violence during meal times. It’s been theorized that the metro foremen tried to de-escalate the situation by introducing bread that could be broken into pieces by hand—thereby eliminating the need for laborers to carry knives. Alas, neither story is supported by much in the way of historical evidence. Still, it’s clear that lengthy bread is nothing new in France: Six-foot loaves were a common sight in the mid-1800s. The baguette as we know it today, however, didn’t spring into existence until the early 20th century. The modern loaf is noted for its crispy golden crust and white, puffy center—both traits made possible by the advent of steam-based ovens, which first arrived on France’s culinary scene in the 1920s.

4. POTATOES

Bowl of red, white, and black potatoes on wooden table

Historical records show that potatoes reached Ireland by the year 1600. Nobody knows who first introduced them; the list of potential candidates includes everyone from Sir Walter Raleigh to the Spanish Armada. Regardless, Ireland turned out to be a perfect habitat for the tubers, which hail from the misty slopes of the Andes Mountains in South America. Half a world away, Ireland’s rich soils and rainy climate provided similar conditions—and potatoes thrived there. They also became indispensable. For millennia, the Irish diet had mainly consisted of dairy products, pig meats, and grains, none of which were easy for poor farmers to raise. Potatoes, on the other hand, were inexpensive, easy to grow, required fairly little space, and yielded an abundance of filling carbs. Soon enough, the average Irish peasant was subsisting almost entirely on potatoes, and the magical plant is credited with almost single-handedly triggering an Irish population boom. In 1590, only around 1 million people lived on the island; by 1840, that number had skyrocketed to 8.2 million. Unfortunately, this near-total reliance on potatoes would have dire consequences for the Irish people. In 1845, a disease caused by fungus-like organisms killed off somewhere between one-third and one-half of the country’s potatoes. Roughly a million people died as a result, and almost twice as many left Ireland in a desperate mass exodus. Yet potatoes remained a cornerstone of the Irish diet after the famine ended; in 1899, one magazine reported that citizens were eating an average of four pounds’ worth of them every day. Expatriates also brought their love of potatoes with them to other countries, including the U.S. But by then, the Yanks had already developed a taste for the crop: The oldest record of a permanent potato patch on American soil dates back to 1719. That year, a group of farmers—most likely Scots-Irish immigrants—planted one in the vicinity of modern-day Derry, New Hampshire. From these humble origins, the potato steadily rose in popularity, and by 1796, American cookbooks were praising its “universal use, profit, and easy acquirement.”

5. CORN

Corn growing in a field

In the 1930s, geneticist George W. Beadle exposed a vital clue about how corn—also known as maize—came into existence. A future Nobel Prize winner, Beadle demonstrated that the chromosomes found in everyday corn bear a striking resemblance to those of a Mexican grass called teosinte. At first glance, teosinte may not look very corn-like. Although it does have kernels, these are few in number and encased in tough shells that can easily chip a human tooth. Nonetheless, years of work allowed Beadle to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that corn was descended from teosinte. Today, genetic and archaeological data suggests that humans began the slow process of converting this grass into corn around 8700 years ago in southwestern Mexico. If you're wondering why early farmers showed any interest in cultivating teosinte to begin with, while the plant is fairly unappetizing in its natural state, it does have a few key attributes. One of these is the ability to produce popcorn: If held over an open fire, the kernels will “pop” just as our favorite movie theater treat does today. It might have been this very quality that inspired ancient horticulturalists to tinker around with teosinte—and eventually turn it into corn

BONUS: TEA

Person sitting cross-legged holding a cup of green tea

The United Kingdom’s ongoing love affair with this hot drink began somewhat recently. Tea—which is probably of Chinese origin—didn’t appear in Britain until the 1600s. Initially, the beverage was seen as an exotic curiosity with possible health benefits. Shipping costs and tariffs put a hefty price tag on tea, rendering it quite inaccessible to the lower classes. Even within England’s most affluent circles, tea didn’t really catch on until King Charles II married Princess Catherine of Braganza. By the time they tied the knot in 1662, tea-drinking was an established pastime among the elite in her native Portugal. Once Catherine was crowned Queen, tea became all the rage in her husband’s royal court. From there, its popularity slowly grew over several centuries and eventually transcended socioeconomic class. At present, the average Brit drinks an estimated three and a half cups of tea every day.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

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10 Filling Facts About A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
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Though it may not be as widely known as It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or A Charlie Brown Christmas, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving has been a beloved holiday tradition for many families for more than 40 years now. Even if you've seen it 100 times, there’s still probably a lot you don’t know about this Turkey Day special.

1. IT’S THE FIRST PEANUTS SPECIAL TO FEATURE AN ADULT VOICE.

We all know the trombone “wah wah wah” sound that Charlie Brown’s teacher makes when speaking in a Peanuts special. But A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, which was released in 1973, made history as the first Peanuts special to feature a real, live, human adult voice. But it’s not a speaking voice—it’s heard in the song “Little Birdie.”

2. IT WASN’T JUST ANY ADULT WHO LENT HIS VOICE TO THE SPECIAL.

Being the first adult to lend his or her voice to a Peanuts special was kind of a big deal, so it makes sense that the honor wasn’t bestowed on just any old singer or voice actor. The song was performed by composer Vince Guardaldi, whose memorable compositions have become synonymous with Charlie Brown and the rest of the gang.

“Guaraldi was one of the main reasons our shows got off to such a great start,” Lee Mendelson, the Emmy-winning producer who worked on many of the Peanuts specials—including A Charlie Brown Thanksgivingwrote for The Huffington Post in 2013. “His ‘Linus and Lucy,’ introduced in A Charlie Brown Christmas, set the bar for the first 16 shows for which he created all the music. For our Thanksgiving show, he told me he wanted to sing a new song he had written for Woodstock. I agreed with much trepidation as I had never heard him sing a note. His singing of ‘Little Birdie’ became a hit."

3. DESPITE THE VOICE, THERE ARE NO ADULTS FEATURED IN THE SPECIAL.

While Peanuts specials are largely populated by children, there’s usually at least an adult or two seen or heard somewhere. That’s not the case with A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. “Charlie Brown Thanksgiving may be the only Thanksgiving special (live or animated) that does not include adults,” Mendelson wrote for HuffPo. “Our first 25 specials honored the convention of the comic strip where no adults ever appeared. (Ironically, our Mayflower special does include adults for the first time.)”

4. LUCY IS MOSTLY M.I.A., TOO.

Though early on in the special, viewers get that staple scene of Lucy pulling a football away from Charlie Brown at the last minute, that’s all we see of Chuck’s nemesis in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. (Lucy's brother, Linus, however, is still a main character.)

5. CHARLIE BROWN AND LUCY STILL KEEP IN TOUCH.

Though they only had a single scene together, Todd Barbee, who voiced Charlie Brown, told Noblemania that he and Robin Kohn, who voiced Lucy in the Thanksgiving special, still keep in touch. “We actually went to high school together,” Barbee said. “We still live in Marin County, are Facebook friends, and occasionally see each other.”

6. CHARLIE BROWN HAD SOME TROUBLE WITH HIS SIGNATURE “AAARRRGG.”

One unique aspect of the Peanuts specials is that the bulk of the characters are voiced by real kids. In the case of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, 10-year-old newcomer Todd Barbee was tasked with giving a voice to Charlie Brown—and it wasn’t always easy.

“One time they wanted me to voice that ‘AAAAAAARRRRRGGGGG’ when Charlie Brown goes to kick the football and Lucy yanks it away,” Barbee recalled to Noblemania in 2014. “Try as I might, I just couldn’t generate [it as] long [as] they were looking for … so after something like 25 takes, we moved on. I was sweating the whole time. I think they eventually got an adult or a kid with an older voice to do that one take."

7. LINUS STILL GETS AN ENTHUSIASTIC RESPONSE.

While Barbee got a crash course in the downside of celebrity at a very early age—“seeing my name printed in TV Guide made everyone around me go bananas … everybody … just thought I was some big movie star or something,” he told Noblemania—Stephen Shea, who voiced Linus, still gets a pretty big reaction.

"I don't walk around saying 'I'm the voice of Linus,'" Shea told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. "But when people find out one way or another, they scream 'I love Linus. That is my favorite character!'"

8. THANKS TO LINUS, THE THANKSGIVING SPECIAL GOT A SPINOFF.

As is often the case in a Peanuts special, Linus gets to play the role of philosopher in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and remind his friends (and the viewers) about the history and true meaning of whatever holiday they’re celebrating. His speech about the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving eventually led to This is America, Charlie Brown: The Mayflower Voyagers, a kind of spinoff adapted from that Thanksgiving Day prayer, which sees the Peanuts gang becoming a part of history.

9. LEE MENDELSON HAD AN ISSUE WITH BIRD CANNIBALISM.

In writing for HuffPo for A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’s 40th anniversary, Mendelson admitted that one particular scene in the special led to “a rare, minor dispute during the creation of the show. Mr. Schulz insisted that Woodstock join Snoopy in carving and eating a turkey. For some reason I was bothered that Woodstock would eat a turkey. I voiced my concern, which was immediately overruled.”

10. MENDELSON EVENTUALLY GOT HIS WAY ... THOUGH NOT FOR LONG.

Though Mendelson lost his original argument against seeing Woodstock eating another bird, he was eventually able to right that wrong. “Years later, when CBS cut the show from its original 25 minutes to 22 minutes, I sneakily edited out the scene of Woodstock eating,” he wrote. “But when we moved to ABC in 2001, the network (happily) elected to restore all the holiday shows to the original 25 minutes, so I finally have given up.”

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