Thursday, September 24, 2015

Chill Tonic and other medical wonders!


When I took ill as a child, my father administered his remedy of choice for everything - whisky water. He'd bring me or my sister a small glass and as we drank it, he'd recite this little verse..."cures coughs and colds and sore assholes, spots on the belly and spinal decay." Family lore has it that the jingle was created by a "black sheep" relative who was tarred and feathered and run out of Saskatoon on a rail because of his antics selling this medicine. I never heard the name of the relative or the elixir  - only the jingle.

The thing was - we all knew this ditty and would recite it whenever anyone took medicine. It was a family tradition and sort of cathartic. It was our version of "tsk tsk...everything will turn out alright." Out of the mouths of babes, it didn't go over very well and I know I was summarily dismissed from a few of my small friend's homes for the recitation.

In honor of that relative, whoever he was, I looked for patent medicines ads or labels to offer for the prompt this week which features Walpole's Preparation. The fine, fine print on the packages is hilarious and the claims made range from silly to preposterous.  No wonder we had to create a Food and Drug Administration.

My favorite product, of all I tracked down, is the Ambition Pill. As the package states it cured impotency, sleeplessness, enlarged veins, nervous debility - which includes troublesome dreams, evil forebodings, losses, despondency and aversion to society caused by overwork or other excesses.  $1.00 per box. Look at the transformation of the chap on the label! So much promise.

Along the same theme, that is medicine at the opening of the twentieth century, we're watching the Cinemax production of the  "The Knick" - a  series about the Knickerbocker Hospital in New York, about 1900. In it, the star surgeon played by Clive Owen is approached by a drug company to lend his name to one of these elixers and become "rich beyond belief." Clive throws him out on his ear.
No holds barred, this show features grisly scenes of surgery, which was very primitive at that time. Let's see...there's ceasarian delivery attempts, hernia repairs, bowel resections, appendix removals and amputations. A formerly beautiful woman shows up whose nose is gone from the ravages of syphillis. She must wear a false nose and glasses in order to move about in public. The surgeons graft a flap of skin from her arm onto her face, but she has to hold the arm up against the face while the graft takes hold.
Syphillitic woman with false nose. From "The Knick" - Cinemax
A particularly bizarre scene shows a very pregnant woman submerging her belly in ice - "to shock the baby into turning around." Do not even think about watching this series if you're squeamish...I'm not, but still I had to turn away at times and watch vicariously through my husband's facial expressions.
The Knick - operating theatre
After watching this program, I'm sure people would have eagerly purchased the patent remedies rather than subject themselves to the knife. In this photo of a real operating theatre from around that time, look at the crowds up in the gallery, where it was standing room only. The surgeons were showmen as well as medical practitioners.
Real operating theatre circa 1900 from the Bonner Collection

Bonnores Electro Magnetic Bathing Fluid took my choice for second place in the bizarro contest. It must have been exceptionally popular because not only did it cure mercurial eruptions (not temper tantrums, but lesions caused by handling mercury)* but also necrosis, hip disease and paralysis. My own family could have used such a magic potion to cure my paternal grandfather who had a gangrenous leg in 1901.



My father was only two that year when his father William died after having the leg removed by the local "saw bones" in their Lake Clear, Ontario farmhouse kitchen. Nobody in the family seemed to know how his leg became gangrenous, but it did - and amputation was his only chance for survival. The operation was not a success. That failure made a mark on the collective psyche of the family leaving them with a lingering suspicion of doctors. I can recall my aunts refusing to seek medical help until they were literally on the brink of death. Here's my grandfather William, grandmother Lucy and some of their brood. Ultimately, there were nine children - three more, including my father, arrived between the date of this photo and William's untimely demise. My grandmother was left to fend for herself on the farm...but that's another story.



Last and most gross of the patents I googled is Grove's Tasteless Chill Tonic which makes a claim that seems hilarious in view of the nation-wide epidemic of childhood obesity in our country. The tonic was a suspension of quinine in liquid, flavored with lemon and sugar to mask the intense bitterness. It was originally a malaria treatment - somehow it morphed into a weight gain tonic.
Tasteless is right!

Got your Lydia Pinkham's and Carter's Little Liver Pills? Good....head on over to Sepia Saturday for more amusing stories of "modern" medicine.

*If a thermometer broke in our house, we'd play with the mercury, pushing it around and poking at it. Between the mercury games, sticking our feet in the shoe department x-ray machines and playing around in the DDT fog, as the mosquito sprayers went up and down our streets, it's a wonder any of my generation is alive at all! But then, my mother made us drink the dreaded teaspoon of Cod Liver oil every day and also a generous gulp of Watkin's Beef, Iron and Wine tonic. Too bad she didn't give us the Ambition Pills. Who knows where we might have ended up?

18 comments:

  1. What a thoroughly enjoyable post, loved every bit of it. Could you get me a box of them Ambition Pills and send them to me ASAP.

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  2. Alan...you don't need Ambition Pills given your incredible output. Tell the truth...you must take some kind of Wit Enhancement Elixir that keeps you amusing week after week after week.

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  3. Thank you for making me laugh. My dad's little ditty was “Spectacles, testa****, watch and wallet” repeating it over the years has got me into a lot of trouble – but I still think it every time I leave the house even though I don’t possess all the necessary items!

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    1. Snap! That was one of my Dad's favorite sayings too.

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    2. How funny Jo - perhaps we will discover we are related!!
      Helen in answer to your comment on my blog Vaganin tablets combine Paracetamol, Caffeine and codeine.

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  4. Anonymous10:42 AM

    That was the best! Funny and fascinating. I come from a slightly Christian Science family where we didn't take much medicine nor did we get sick much. I still avoid doctors as much as possible, like your aunts. When we didn't feel good my father always said " run around the block and you'll feel better."
    Barbara

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  5. A very interesting post, and I love the memory of your childhood self being summarily dismissed from friends' homes for coming out with that amusing ditty. Your friends' parents must not have had a great sense of humour.

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  6. The operating theatre reminds me of that episode on "Seinfeld" when Kramer dropped the Junior Mint into the patient. While that was funny, I don't think I'll be watching "The Knick" anytime soon.

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  7. When some food fell on the floor, my mother used to say "you have to eat a peck of dirt before you die." Her remedy for upset stomachs and flu was warm ginger ale.

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    1. We got the ginger ale, but not warm. I didn't mind the ginger ale but I didn't like the hot ginger tea my grandmother used for almost every ailment.

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  8. I'd like to read about how Grandmother Lucy coped after William's death. Maybe she took iron supplements.

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    1. Even better...she married the boy next door..and I mean boy. Bertie was 25 years her junior. Bertie took the iron suppements.

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  9. When my Grandma Louise was visiting, if one of us kids came crying, her first response was "Hurtcha-cutcha-burnya?" It made us laugh & we'd settle down so we could tell someone what was wrong. Sayings are good - such as "Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down" except my mother used to mash pills up in apricot jam. To this day I still imagine a slightly bitter taste to apricot jam.

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  10. I just love that little ditty. I have a friend who is suffering at the moment and I think I might pass the ditty on for her to recite as she takes her antibiotics. And I wonder what would happen if a woman took an Ambition Pill. That was a wonderful collection.

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  11. That program about old operation does not sound like my cup of tea. In fact I got sort of queasy just reading about the topics covered.

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  12. What I find unsettling when reading these old adverts for miracle drugs, is that today's modern ads of pharmaceuticals use the same exaggerated prose style and jolly cartoon characters. The only difference is the warnings for all the dire side-effects!

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  13. I'm with Mike. These days the nonsense spewed by big pharma is as ludicrous as the ads from the past. I'm always fascinated by the side-effects that quickly gloss over. And that little ditty is priceless. Did you ever use it for jumping rope? My folks choice was elderberry wine. And I was always told to not tell grandma when they'd give me a little glass.

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  14. I love the hats in one of the pictures, as for the prompt picture, it looks like the head of the child was Photoshopped in, which, of course, was impossible at that time....

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