A History of Medical Quackery: From Arsenic Soaps to Asthma Cigarettes and Much More

In the 19th century, the accessibility of medicine was like opening Pandora’s box—it brought both blessings and bizarre, sometimes perilous, quackery.

Some “cures” were harmless hoaxes, but many others were downright dangerous, often containing addictive and life-threatening ingredients.

One of the most notorious examples of this era was the promotion of arsenic-laden soaps and cosmetics. Arsenic was believed to improve complexion and promote a pale, fashionable look.

Radium, with its enchanting glow, found its way into toothpaste and cosmetics, promising a radiant smile and flawless complexion.

Meanwhile, “Asthma Cigarettes” were marketed as a remedy for respiratory ailments, containing a mix of herbs and narcotics, including the highly addictive substance stramonium.

As we look back on these bizarre and dangerous remedies, we can’t help but feel grateful for modern regulations and scientific advancements.

We may chuckle at the absurdity of these products, but it’s a stark reminder of how easily we can be swayed by promises of health and beauty.

Asthma Cigarettes

Potter's Asthma Cigarettes: "For the relief of Asthma Attacks and other Spasmodic affections of the respiratory tract"

Potter’s Asthma Cigarettes: “For the relief of Asthma Attacks and other Spasmodic affections of the respiratory tract”

Asthma cigarettes were an intriguing yet questionable remedy for respiratory issues in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These cigarettes did contain a blend of herbs and narcotics, usually including atropine.

Atropine opened the airways of the lungs, providing temporary relief from asthma symptoms.

However, it also caused lightheadedness, nausea, hallucinations, and a rapid heart rate in smokers.

Nevertheless, products like Potter’s Asthma Cigarettes, Himrod’s Cure for Asthma, and Dr. Kellogg’s Asthma Remedy became extremely popular.

Dr. Blosser's Medical Cigarettes.

Dr. Blosser’s Medical Cigarettes.

The famous French writer Marcel Proust, who suffered from asthma, vividly described the effects of smoking these cigarettes.

He wrote to his mother about the misery of smoking during an asthma attack, noting that it forced him to walk doubled over and to stop at every tobacconist for anti-asthma cigarettes.

“Misery of miseries or mystery of mysteries…” he wrote to his mother about smoking during an attack, “That [applies] very well to me at the moment.

[My asthma] obliged me to walk all doubled up and light anti-asthma cigarettes at every tobacconist’s I passed. And what’s worse, I haven’t been able to go to bed till midnight, after endless fumigations…”

Kellogg's Asthma Cigarettes.

Kellogg’s Asthma Cigarettes.

During this era, smoking was often viewed as having medicinal benefits, and asthma cigarettes were a part of that trend.

However, the actual effectiveness of these cigarettes was dubious, and they could even be harmful due to the toxic nature of stramonium.

"Cigares de Joy Cure Asthma"

“Cigares de Joy Cure Asthma”

Potter's Asthma Remedies.

Potter’s Asthma Remedies.

"Asthmador Cigarettes"

“Asthmador Cigarettes”

Stramonium, also known as jimsonweed or thornapple, is a plant species belonging to the nightshade family (Solanaceae). It is native to the Americas but has spread to other parts of the world.

In medicine, stramonium has been historically used for its antispasmodic and bronchodilator properties. It has been employed in the treatment of asthma and other respiratory conditions.

Unfortunately, stramonium is also highly toxic and can cause serious side effects, including hallucinations, delirium, tachycardia, and even death in high doses.

Due to these risks, its medicinal use has decreased significantly, and it is now mainly considered a poisonous plant.

Brushing your Teeth with Radioactive Toothpaste

Tho-Radia for White Teeth.

Tho-Radia for White Teeth.

Radioactive toothpaste made a startling entry onto the consumer scene in the early 20th century, a time when the properties of radiation were not fully grasped.

Advocates believed that radiation could effectively kill bacteria and promote better oral hygiene.

One of the most famous examples was “Thorium Toothpaste,” which contained thorium chloride.
Brushing your Teeth with Radioactive ToothpasteThis era also saw the use of radioactive elements in various consumer products, including cosmetics, health tonics, and even radioactive water, all marketed for their supposed health and beauty benefits.

The reality was far darker. Exposure to radium caused severe health issues, including anemia, bone fractures, necrosis of the jaw, and ultimately, a gruesome death.

Arsenic Soap

Arsenic soap for clear complexion.

Arsenic soap for clear complexion.

Arsenic has a long and dark history of being used in various forms for medicinal and cosmetic purposes, despite its highly toxic nature.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, arsenic was commonly used in soaps and cosmetics for its purported skin-clearing and complexion-improving properties.

It was believed to promote a pale complexion, which was fashionable at the time, as well as treat skin conditions such as acne and psoriasis.

Another advertisement for arsenic soap.

Another advertisement for arsenic soap.

Arsenic was also used as a treatment for a wide range of ailments, including syphilis, malaria, and even as a general tonic.

Arsenic is extremely toxic, and prolonged exposure can lead to a variety of serious health issues, including skin lesions, organ damage, and death.

Despite this, arsenic continued to be used in consumer products and medicines until the early 20th century, when its dangers became more widely recognized and its use was regulated.

Pink Pills for Pale People

"Dr. Williams Pink Pills"

“Dr. Williams Pink Pills”

Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People was a patent medicine from the late 19th to early 20th century.

This medication contained ferrous sulfate and magnesium sulfate and was manufactured by the Dr. Williams Medicine Company, which was the trading arm of G. T. Fulford & Company.

The pills were advertised to cure chorea, often referred to in newspapers as “St. Vitus’ Dance,” as well as other conditions such as locomotor ataxia, partial paralysis, sciatica, neuralgia, rheumatism, nervous headaches, the lingering effects of influenza, heart palpitations, and pale or sallow complexions, addressing weakness in both men and women.

Pink Pills for Pale PeopleThe pills were coated in pink-colored sugar. An analysis conducted in 1909 for the British Medical Association showed that they contained sulfate of iron, potassium carbonate, magnesia, powdered licorice, and sugar.

The analysis also found that about one-third of the iron sulfate in the pills had oxidized, indicating that the pills had been “very carelessly prepared.”

Pink Pills for Pale PeopleThe Pink Pills were widely used across the British Empire and, as the historian of Southeast Asia Mary Kilcline Cody puts it, “If the invulnerability magic of the sola topi, the spine pad, and the cholera belt failed, Europeans could always rely on the Pink Pills to alleviate the pressures of bearing the white man’s burden.”

The Pink Pills were not only marketed in Europe; tales of its “wonder” spread even to Egypt.

Pink Pills for Pale People

Dr Williams’ ‘Pink Pills’ were advertised as an iron rich tonic for the blood and nerves to treat anaemia, clinical depression, poor appetite and lack of energy. The tablets were originally advertised as ‘Pink Pills for Pale People’. Users of the product claimed the pills could even cure paralysis. The patent for the pills was bought by an American politician, Senator George T Fulford (1852-1905) in 1890. Fulford made the product an international success.

Pink Pills for Pale People

Pink Pills for Pale People

“Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills break a Record”.

Over time, the product was advertised in 82 countries worldwide, including its home country of Canada, the United States, and Europe.

The pills underwent changes in advertising and formulation, even including aloe as a laxative at one point.

However, production ceased in the 1970s because, ultimately, they didn’t live up to their miraculous claims.

Tampons Soaked in Opium

Pond’s Tampon. (Photo from Pharmacy Museum in New Orleans).

Pond’s Tampon. (Photo from Pharmacy Museum in New Orleans).

Pond’s Tampon with opium was a product marketed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a remedy for various female complaints, including menstrual cramps and nervous disorders.

It contained a mixture of opium and other ingredients, packaged in a tampon-like form for insertion.

Pond’s Tampon. (Photo from Pharmacy Museum in New Orleans).Patented in the United States in 1902, by Edmund Morse Pond — a Rutland, Vermont surgeon and inventor, that 1902 patent described a “medicated tampon,” and stated:

My invention has relation to improvements in surgical appliances in the nature of suppositories, tampons and capsules for internal application and treatment of the uterine system or of the rectum.

And the object is to provide a compressible and expansible roll or cylinder composed of an absorbent material which in its compressed form may be applied within a cavity of the body and when so applied may be released from compression and automatically expand…

The interior of the body may be cored out…to afford room for a medical substance, which will saturate the material and eventually reach the surface and be applied to the diseased member.

In the other instances the material composing the device may be saturated before or after compression, or the gelatinous covering may constitute the medicated medium.

This 1907 advertisement, promoted Pond's tampons as "a perfect method of local medication in gynecological work" and "as a means of applying local treatment in gonorrhea, endometritis, cervicitis".

This 1907 advertisement, promoted Pond’s tampons as “a perfect method of local medication in gynecological work” and “as a means of applying local treatment in gonorrhea, endometritis, cervicitis”.

Opium was commonly used in medicines during this era for its pain-relieving properties, despite its addictive nature and potential for harm.

Pond’s Tampon with opium was part of a larger trend of patent medicines and remedies that promised relief from a wide range of ailments.

These products were often marketed with exaggerated claims and without scientific evidence to support their effectiveness.

Wine and Cocaine Cocktails

Cocaine Cocktails

“Tonic French Wince Coca”

Cocaine cocktails were intriguing beverages that gained popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

These cocktails, often featuring cocaine as a key ingredient, were renowned for their stimulating and invigorating effects.

They were believed to offer a quick energy boost and were sometimes used as remedies for various ailments, including headaches and fatigue.

Cocaine Cocktails

Mariani Wine.

One of the most famous examples of these cocktails was “Vin Mariani,” a tonic made from coca leaves infused into wine.

This concoction garnered endorsements from numerous celebrities and even popes, who praised its supposed health benefits and revitalizing properties.
Coca-ColaAnother well-known product was the original formula of Coca-Cola, which contained cocaine extracted from coca leaves.

However, as awareness of the addictive and harmful effects of cocaine grew, regulations were introduced, leading to the removal of cocaine from Coca-Cola and the decline in popularity.

Toilet Masks for Victorian Women

Toilet Masks for Victorian Women

Toilet Mask or Face Glove.

Victorian toilet masks were elaborate, often ornate masks worn by women while using the toilet, particularly in the 19th century.

They were used to protect the wearer’s face from the harsh fumes and odors that were common in Victorian-era bathrooms, which often lacked proper ventilation or sanitation.

The masks were typically made of fabric, often with layers of gauze or other materials to filter the air and reduce the unpleasant smells.

Snake Oil

Clark Stanley's Snake Oil.

Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil.

Clark Stanley was an American herbalist and quack doctor who marketed a “snake oil” as a patent medicine, styling himself the “Rattlesnake King” until his fraudulent products were exposed in 1916, popularizing the pejorative title of the “snake oil salesman”.

Stanley claimed that he studied for more than two years with a Hopi medicine man at Walpi, Arizona. This supposedly included learning the “secrets of snake oil”.

With the help of a Boston druggist he began marketing his product at Western medicine shows.

In 1893 he and his rattlesnakes gained attention at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois.

Advertisement of Clark Stanley's Snake Oil.

Advertisement of Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment.

In 1916, subsequent to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, Stanley’s concoction was examined and found to be of no value.

It was found to contain mineral oil, a fatty compound thought to be from beef, capsaicin from chili peppers, and turpentine. He was fined $20.00 (approximately to $470 in 2019).

The term “snake oil” would go on to become a popular euphemism for ineffective or fraudulent products, particularly those marketed as medicines or cures.

High Heels Orthopedic Shoes

High Heels Orthopedic ShoesIn the late 1800s, companies started offering relatively inexpensive “corrective” footwear.

These shoes not only provided height to match the heavy dresses of the time but also aimed to improve a woman’s posture and, in some cases, reshape her foot entirely.

Until the 1940s, the Federal Trade Commission didn’t regulate companies using phrases like “Scientifically recommended…” or “Doctor’s best heels!”

This meant that the physical strains caused by wearing sky-high heels could be dismissed as minor discomforts on the path to better health.

High Heels Orthopedic Shoes

These types of high-heeled shoes were specially designed footwear intended to provide additional height and support for individuals with orthopedic issues, such as foot deformities or leg length discrepancies.

These footwear typically featured a higher-than-normal sole or heel, which can help correct gait abnormalities and provide relief from certain foot conditions. Some of these designs were obviously painful and ineffective.

High Heels Orthopedic Shoes

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / Britannica / Library of Congress).