Skip to content
    Font Size
    A
    A
    A

    A Look Back at Old-Time Medicines

    Antique medicines contained everything from arsenic to opium -- and promised instant cures.
    By
    WebMD Feature
    Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

    Pity the poor Victorian-era family whose bottle of Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup ran dry. It was touted as an indispensable aid to quiet bawling babies and teething tots, and it packed a wallop of an ingredient: morphine.

    Today, no one would dream of calming an infant with morphine, but the museum of medicine is littered with such discarded remedies. Some were fanciful potions that quacks concocted to make a buck, while others were legitimate -- even revered -- treatments that eventually yielded to more enlightened science.

    Recommended Related to Drugs and Herbs

    Health Predictions for 2009

    From the Salmonella saintpaul outbreak which sickened more than 1,400 people in the U.S. to autism and vaccines as well as bisphenol A in baby bottles, 2008 certainly generated its share of medical scare stories. We have likely not heard the end of these stories, but experts from different fields of medicine are now sharing their predictions about what we will be seeing more -- or less of -- in 2009. By and large, the common thread tying together all the specialties in 2009 is the growth of personalized...

    Read the Health Predictions for 2009 article > >

    For example, opium suffers a tainted reputation these days. But doctors have favored it throughout history, especially to control coughing and diarrhea.

    "It was regarded as an all-purpose drug. One physician called it 'God's own medicine,'" says James C. Whorton, PhD, a medical historian and professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

    'Legitimate' Medicine of an Earlier Era

    Doctors used arsenic and mercury to treat syphilisbefore the introduction of penicillin in the 1940s.

    One company sold heroin tablets to relieve asthmasymptoms.

    Old medicines and antique urinals? Check out one collector's story.

    Cocaine drops for toothache came on the market after doctors discovered its pain-relieving qualities. One Belgian company even promoted cocaine throat lozenges as "indispensable for singers, teachers and orators." Dentists and surgeons also used cocaine as an anesthetic.

    While doctors of the late 1800s considered these drugs legitimate, a whole range of shady patent medicines, sometimes called "nostrums," also flourished during that period.

    Traveling Medicine Shows

    People bought nostrums from traveling medicine shows, and the cures beckoned boldly from billboards and newspaper and magazine ads. "You couldn't get away from them," Whorton says. "They were inescapable."

    Many nostrums targeted vague "female complaints." The delicate dames of yore didn't mention menstrual cramps and hot flashes in polite company. But they were lining up to buy Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, one of the most popular women's remedies of the time.

    Plenty of other patent medicines flooded the American landscape, according to a history posted on the web site of the FDA. They included: Fatoff Obesity Cream, Make-Man Tablets, and Antimorbific Liver and Kidney Medicine. Also touted for "weak hearts, weak blood, weak nerves" was a product called Anglo-American Heart Remedy. And Dr. Bonker's Celebrated Egyptian Oil was available for "colic, cramps in the stomach and bowels, and cholera."

    Another classic: Mack Mahon the Rattle Snake Oil King's Liniment for Rheumatism and Catarrh. Catarrh? Not as weird as it sounds. Just an old-fashioned way of saying congestion -- the kind that comes with the common cold.

    Hot Topics

    WebMD Video: Now Playing

    Click here to wach video: Dirty Truth About Hand Washing

    Which sex is the worst about washing up? Why is it so important? We’ve got the dirty truth on how and when to wash your hands.

    Click here to watch video: Dirty Truth About Hand Washing

    Popular Slideshows & Tools on WebMD

    disciplining a boy
    Types, symptoms, causes.
    fruit drinks
    Eat these to think better.
    Balding man in mirror
    Treatments & solutions.
    No gym workout
    Moves to help control blood sugar.
    Remember your finger
    Are you getting more forgetful?
    acupuncture needle on shoulder
    10 tips to look and feel good.
    Close up of eye
    12 reasons you're distracted.
    birth control pills
    Which kind is right for you?
    embarrassed woman
    Do you feel guilty after eating?
    woman biting a big ice cube
    Habits that wreck your teeth.
    pacemaker next to xray
    Treatment options.
    Pink badge on woman chest to support breat cancer
    Myths and facts.

    Pollen counts, treatment tips, and more.

    It's nothing to sneeze at.

    Loading ...

    Sending your email...

    This feature is temporarily unavailable. Please try again later.

    Thanks!

    Now check your email account on your mobile phone to download your new app.

    Women's Health Newsletter

    Find out what women really need.