Medical developments come and go over the centuries, but one thing that unites us with our ancestors is that incurable misery of human life – the common cold. Snot hasn’t changed much since the Hippocratic writings of the 5th century BC described the ‘acrid mucus’ that runs from the nose, and presciently referred to colds as something ‘which we have all experienced and shall continue to do so.’
But it is, as they say, an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and one way to benefit from the common cold is to sell a purported cure. During the Victorian period, commercial over-the-counter remedies proliferated, anticipating the array of cold medicines available today. Big advertising budgets – plus the fact that most colds get better on their own no matter what you take – contributed to these products’ success. Here we look at ten of the remedies available to the bunged-up customers of 19th-century British and American pharmacies.
1. Pectoral Balsam of Honey
At the beginning of the Victorian era, one might still have been lucky enough to get hold of this eighteenth-century concoction introduced by Sir John Hill. Hill was a qualified doctor and prolific author, but found selling patent remedies more lucrative than writing (plus ça change, eh?). His medicine for ‘coughs, colds, asthmas and consumptions’ remained commercially available until at least the 1830s, containing honey, fragrant Tolu balsam (a tree resin) – and delicious, nutritious opium to soothe away the sufferer’s cares.
2. Dr Agnew’s Catarrh Powder
Adverts promised that ‘a single trial will delight you’ – the delight probably resulted from its 5.32% cocaine content. And some generic catarrh powders and snuffs had a much higher proportion of the drug. Unsurprisingly, people didn’t always wait to have a cold before availing themselves of these products. In 1895, for example, a Chicago boy called William Thompson inveigled some catarrh powder from a pharmacist and ‘by swallowing and snuffing the contents of the package managed to take twenty-five doses of it in less than five minutes.’ As one St Louis drugstore clerk put it in 1897: ‘Don’t take catarrh snuffs unless you want to become a cocaine fiend.’
3. Dr Pierce’s Nasal Douche
Apart from being a satisfying insult (‘remove yourself from my presence, you nasal douche’), this product worked on a similar principle to the sinus irrigators available today. It emerged from the patent medicine empire of Ray Vaughn Pierce of Buffalo, NY, who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars advertising popular remedies such as Dr Pierce’s Golden Discovery and Dr Pierce’s Favorite Prescription. Marketing materials reassured the wary potential douche recipient that the treatment ‘is never attended with any strangling, choking, pain, or other disagreeable sensations’ – provided they used its accompanying product, Dr Sage’s Catarrh Remedy.
In 1873, chemists in Berlin analysed the catarrh remedy and said it comprised carbolic acid, camphor and salt, coloured with a little Prussian blue. Pierce hit back at this ‘bogus’ formula, accusing the scientists of jealousy over his success and riches.
4. The Century Thermal Bath
The cold sufferer with a towel over their head, dripping mucus into a steaming basin, remains a familiar image. At the turn of the 20th century, portable Turkish baths similarly allowed patients to steam away ‘a Hard Cold’ as well as anything else that might be wrong with them. The treatment involved sitting inside a wooden compartment in company with boiling water kept hot by an alcohol-burning stove. What could possibly go wrong? Considering the popularity of these devices, however, there were relatively few fatalities. (Incidentally, the proprietor of the Century Thermal Bath also sold products to cure drunkenness, make short people tall, and enlarge women’s breasts.)
5. Frog in your throat?
When the cough lozenge brand ‘Frog in your throat?’ arrived in Britain from the US in 1894, its promoters used a novel advertising method – offering retail chemists cash prizes for the best frog-related window display. The earliest displays took the theme of ‘Merrie England in Ye Olden Time’, showing ‘grotesque Japanese artificial frogs’ getting up to all sorts of medieval shenanigans. Chemists ran with the idea and introduced elaborate scenes of their own, such as the one in Chelmsford that featured ‘big frogs and little frogs, professional frogs, and working-class frogs; idle frogs and industrious frogs; frogs standing up and frogs sitting down; frogs walking, and frogs jumping; and a frog’s love story is set forth in four chapters.’ Such a spectacle brought appreciative audiences to the windows, and the product really made a splash in the British market.
6. Cigares de Joy
The words ‘cigars’ and ‘health’ seem unlikely bedfellows these days, but smoking was a remarkably efficient way to get medicine into the lungs. Products like Cigares de Joy were a mainstream treatment for asthma and winter coughs; the Medical Times and Gazette described them in 1875 as ‘very useful little agents’ for inhaling the standard treatment of the time – stramonium. Stramonium, a herbal medicine, can cause hallucinations, but it probably brought some genuine relief from respiratory symptoms.
On the less reputable side of inhalation therapy was the Ammoniaphone, a long flute-like invention aimed not only at those suffering sore throats and coughs, but also at people keen to improve their singing voices. The inside of the tube contained wadding impregnated with hydrogen peroxide, ammonia and peppermint oil – a combination that its inventor dubbed ‘artificial Italianised air’ on the basis that Italy’s climate produced the best opera stars.
8. Allcock’s Porous Plaster
Invented in the US in 1845, the porous plaster contained a potent mixture of shredded india rubber, cayenne pepper, turpentine, Peru balsam, pine pitch and litharge (technically lead (II) oxide but the inventors could well have been referring to lead carbonate). To treat coughs and colds, the patient had to stick it to their chest and enjoy the somewhat warm sensation radiating through their skin. That was the easy part – removing the plaster could prove a challenge and required copious applications of hot towels, or possibly even a flat iron.
9. The Instra Warmer
Prevention is better than cure. Before the discovery of viruses, the idea that colds were caused by a cold environment made perfect sense (and, indeed, we all know someone who still thinks this). A small ‘portable stove’ was therefore just the thing to ward off chills. Patented in 1896 by the 12th Earl of Dundonald (pictured), the Instra Warmer was small enough to carry in a pocket and contained a slow-burning fuel cartridge that gave out heat for up to four hours. After the Instra Warmer’s success, the range expanded to include a Chest Stove, heated bicycle handles and even a Horse Stove to keep riders warm on those frosty mornings.
10. Munyon’s Cold Cure
Unlike many patent medicine vendors, who offered single cure-all remedies, James Monroe Munyon of Philadelphia had a different product for every disease. They were supposedly homeopathic, though active ingredients did turn up in some. Munyon’s Cold Cure promised to ‘break up a cold in a few hours’, with a money-back guarantee if it didn’t work. For the flu, you could try Munyon’s Grippe Remedy, which had two components – sugar and arsenic.
Anticipating massive success in Britain, Munyon opened offices in Liverpool and London in 1897. To oversee this work, he sent his trusted Consulting Physician, who had proved himself an industrious employee in the Philadelphia and Toronto branches. The physician’s name was Dr Crippen… but that’s a whole other article.
Caroline Rance runs The Quack Doctor, a website about the history of medical advertising and health fraud. Her book, The Quack Doctor: Historical Remedies for All Your Ills, was published in October 2013 by The History Press and she has also recently compiled a pocket trivia compendium, What the Apothecary Ordered, for Old House Books. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr.