America was a pharmaceutical free-for-all until the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Before then, nostrums — unproven medicines of questionable safety and health value — were peddled freely, no prescription needed. Consumers could skip into the pharmacy and pick up Cocaine Toothache Drops for babies, radium hand cleaners or Bayer’s heroin cough suppressant. Without government regulation or a culture of public skepticism, untested treatments were a hugely lucrative business.
Nostrums pervaded nearly every facet of medicine, including women’s health. Yet it’s hard to fault 19th-century women for taking reproductive health into their own hands and opting to self-medicate. In those days, doctors examined women by feeling under their skirts while looking the other way. Such efforts to respect delicate female sensibilities made accurate diagnoses unlikely.
Here are some of the most dubious and dangerous lady remedies of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
For: vaginal pain relief
In 2016, the addition of cannabis oil to a coconut butter vaginal suppository was hailed as a revolutionary fix for period pain. At the turn of the last century, the intravaginal pain reliever of choice was opium, the drug from which morphine, heroin and codeine are derived. Pond’s Tampons came dipped in the secret-weapon ingredient, used both for its analgesic (pain-relieving) and antispasmodic (spasm-controlling) properties. The tampons also contained belladonna (deadly nightshade), which is still used in rectal suppositories to treat pain after vaginal surgery. Opium-laced Helonia Vaginal Tablets were used for abnormal vaginal discharge or, as the issue was known back then, “the whites.”
Unlike many of the products on this list, Pond’s tampons likely did what they were supposed to. Still, by the end of the 19th century, about 60 percent of opium addicts were women. Many of them got hooked after taking morphine prescribed for conditions including menstrual cramps and hysteria.
For: pregnant and nursing women
Anheuser-Busch touted Malt Nutrine, with its 1.9-percent alcohol content (about half that of a typical light beer), as invaluable to nursing moms. Sold in what looked like a beer bottle, the “liquid food and tonic” was pumped with the “nerve-building power” of malt and hops, supposedly to increase strength, settle nerves, improve sleep and aid digestion.
Pabst got in on the curative beer action too. The company published pamphlets touting Pabst Malt Extract as the “ideal preparation for nursing mothers.” A 1907 ad described the malt extract as a “rich, wholesome food” to lessen the “dread and realism” of new motherhood and provide a little pep for the “weak, worn-out and overworked.” A 1915 ad even suggested the malt extract would help nourish expectant mothers.
For: any and all female troubles
Old-timey doctors regarded the female reproductive system as a mysterious force. More often than not, they just assumed women’s health problems were womb-related. Dr. Kilmer’s Female Remedy, “specially adapted to female constitutions,” claimed to help alleviate period pain, rid the body of tumors and cancer and, perhaps most importantly, restore “youthful bloom and beauty.”
While these products were promoted at traveling medicine shows, some companies took additional measures to drive sales. The Vivai company, eviscerated as frauds in a 1915 paper by the American Medical Association, would lure “impressionable women” to legitimate-sounding lectures in order to hawk tablets, laxatives and suppositories. Vivai used scare tactics and lies in their marketing materials, warning women about painful sex (“marital obligation could become distressing”) and claiming that abnormal discharge could result in weak offspring, a sallow complexion and depression. The company also blamed cancerous tumors on stagnation in the blood. Vivai curatives, of course, were always the answer.
Chemistry professors concluded that the only thing Wine of Cardui had the power to do was get someone drunk.
In reality, Vivai products contained mainly cocoa butter and goldenseal, which is sometimes used to relieve congestion, stomach pains and constipation, but not to treat cancer or depression.
Government analysis deemed similar products medically useless, as noted in a 1911 JAMA report that spurred a crackdown on nostrum-makers. The curatives mainly contained alcohol and negligible amounts of herbal ingredients: St. Andrew’s Wine of Life Female Regulator was a mix of alcohol, sugar and tannins. The company was fined $50 in 1917 for making false health claims. Gerstle’s Female Panacea contained 20 percent alcohol, 1.6 percent vegetable extract and water. The product was found to be an ineffective treatment for irregular periods, “the whites” and “failing of the womb” (uterine prolapse).
Wine of Cardui, touted as “nature’s great emmenagogue” (meaning it promoted menstrual flow), contained 20 percent alcohol and blessed thistle. In the 1910s, chemistry professors concluded that the only thing Wine of Cardui had the power to do was get someone drunk.
Not only were these alcoholic tonics, or “bracers,” medically ineffective, but according to some doctors, they also gave way to substance abuse. Peruna, a 28-percent-alcohol iron tonic, led to “alcoholic multiple neuritis [paralysis] in a most estimable lady,” as one doctor wrote in a 1908 report for the federal Committee on Social Betterment.
For: inducing miscarriage
From the Colonial period through the mid-19th century, it was acceptable for women to choose whether or not to “restore menses,” i.e., intentionally miscarry before the fetus starts kicking around the fourth month of pregnancy, an event called the “quickening.” Between the 1860s and the 1880s, state laws criminalized all abortion. But in the preceding decades, abortifacients (substances that end pregnancy) were easy to come by. Newspapers of the era were filled with ads for products that promised to correct menstrual “obstructions and suppression” — euphemisms for pregnancy.
Dr. Mott’s Pennyroyal Pills claimed to “restore menstrual function when suppressed by ANY CAUSE,” and assured women their products would be mailed in a plain wrapper. Ad copy for Mr. P. Blanchard’s medicine said it “should not be taken by those expecting to become Mothers, as it is sure to produce a miscarriage”; historians say that signaled to women they could use the product to terminate pregnancies.
By 1940 and until 1960, the commercial douche was the leading contraceptive method for women.
Hooper’s Female Pills, patented in 1743, were intended for women between age 10 and “the turn of life.” If taken regularly, the company claimed, the pills could treat not only heart palpitations and stomach pains, but also “giddiness,” “loathing of food” and “Dislike to Exercise and Conversation.” What’s more, the pills could rid the body of “gross humors” after childbirth, as well as clear out any “blockages” (i.e., fetuses). An eventual analysis revealed that Hooper’s pills did contain iron in therapeutic amounts, but the drug appeared to often pass through the intestinal tract unabsorbed.
Some of these formulations did contain ingredients that could induce abortion, such as pennyroyal, parsley and fennel. But many of them were useless, containing aloes and iron, which was incorrectly thought to be an abortifacient. Those were the two main ingredients in the infamous Madame Restell’s “female pills.” If the pills didn’t work, Restell offered to terminate clients’ pregnancies surgically.
For: contraception and vaginal youthfulness
Sure, a modern Jazz Age wife might go motoring and golfing with her husband, but what really made her “still the girl he married,” according to a 1928 magazine ad, was douching with Lysol vagina disinfectant — to protect her “zest for living.”
References to safeguarding youthful zest were code for avoiding pregnancy, according to historians. Producers of chemical cleaning agents began aggressively marketing bleach-based douches to women at the start of the 20th century, often invoking cryptic language to push the contraception angle. “Many a home is peaceful and happy…when fear and doubt no longer cloud a young wife’s outlook,” read one ad for Zonite douche, insinuating that a baby could demolish marital harmony. It was probably no coincidence that contraceptives had been ruled obscene by the Comstock Act of 1873. (They wouldn’t be legal again for almost another 100 years.)
By 1940 and until 1960, the commercial douche was the leading contraceptive method for women, albeit not a particularly reliable one. A 1933 study revealed that half of women who’d used Lysol as a douche, believing antiseptics killed sperm, became pregnant.
It was also common for douching ads to suggest that an antiseptic vagina was a youthful vagina, and the key to keeping one’s dear husband hot and bothered. By 1911, these products had caused several deaths and nearly 200 Lysol poisonings.
Uterine Tonics and Ladies’ Tonics
For: safe labor and other lady problems
Aletris Cordial, often called Mother’s Cordial, was a “uterine tonic” containing the herb unicorn root. Sold between 1901 and 1920, the product supposedly improved a woman’s chances of having a safe labor and birth. Native American populations east of the Mississippi River have also used the plant to stimulate menstruation or strengthen the uterus, but the American Botanical Council says there’s not enough research to ascertain unicorn root’s effectiveness. And it’s impossible to know if Aletris Cordial contained enough of the root to have a therapeutic impact. Regardless, it’s still sold today to ease PMS symptoms and regulate periods.
While Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound didn’t contain enough drugs to be sold as a medicine, it did contain enough alcohol to be taxed as a libation.
Unicorn root was also an ingredient in the best-selling remedy Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. A former midwife and nurse from Lynn, Massachusetts, Pinkham started selling her ladies’ tonic in 1875, when she was in her 50s. Advertisements claimed it could help women get pregnant as well as relieve a host of lady problems, from menstrual cramps to a prolapsed uterus.
Product analysis in 1912 revealed that, while Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound didn’t contain enough drugs to be sold as a medicine, it did contain enough alcohol to be taxed as a libation. The compound is still around today, but now has additional herbs and a lower alcohol content.
Pinkham’s more significant contribution to womanhood, however, might have been her activism. She was horrified by the lack of information available to women about their health, so she wrote no-nonsense pamphlets about female biology and established an all-female “Department of Advice” at her company to answer women’s health questions via mail.
After Pinkham’s death in 1887, the family members who ran her company continued to produce women’s health guides. But the messaging shifted, advising women to stay healthy for the sake of fulfilling their wifely duties.
For: a listless libido
Whoops, that’s a current trend.