A Peek inside the Frick Family Medicine Cabinet
Constraints and Cure-Alls
An early drawing of the stethoscope and Hand mit Ringen (Hand with Rings): print of Wilhelm Röntgen's first "medical" X-ray, of his wife's hand, taken on 22 December 1895 and presented to Ludwig Zehnder of the Physik Institut, University of Freiburg, on 1 January 1896
Germ theory was just gaining acceptance, and many hospitals didn’t start using disinfectants until after the Civil War. As a result, most 19th-century healthcare practices relied almost exclusively on cataloging symptoms and comparing them with those of similar ailments—and families often turned to one-size-fits-all cure-all treatments called “patent medicines” (which is really a misnomer because they weren’t actually patented at all!) Not surprisingly, a major ingredient of many of these patent medicines was alcohol. Other ingredients were often “exotic” infusions of herbs and other plants. Many concoctions were fortified with morphine, opium, or cocaine. Since there was no regulation on ingredients, the effectiveness of the medicines was questionable at best.
Newborn dosing suggestions for opium in a solution of 46% alchohol.
A bottle of Bayer's Herion. Between 1890 and 1910 herion was used as a non-addictive substitute for morphine. It was also used to treat a strong cough.
Got Asthma? Try opium!
Believe it or not, there are a number of early patent medicines that are still on the market today, albeit with modified ingredients and health claims. These include Anacin, Bayer Aspirin, BC Powder, Doan’s Pills, Geritol, Goody’s Powder, Luden’s Throat Drops, Philips Milk of Magnesia, and—everyone’s favorite—Vick’s VapoRub.
Health in the Family’s Hands
How many medicines do you use every day date back to the Gilded Age—or earlier?