From advancements to abominations, medicine in the early 1900s was a mixed bag. On one hand, achievements like the commercialization of aspirin and the introduction of penicillin was the dawn of a bright future for public health. On the other hand, the unregulated nature of the medical community led to a flood of “snake oil” treatments that were useless at best and downright dangerous at worst. Indeed, it was the heyday for the charlatan and his quack concoctions. Still, legitimate and effective treatments hit store shelves as scientific advancements abounded. Let’s take a look at all the treatments from the early 1900s that medicine got right—and spectacularly wrong.
Advancements In Medicine
Though we probably can’t imagine a life without it, aspirin was only introduced over a century ago in 1899 by the German company Bayer. Never before had a pain-relieving drug been so safe, effective, and widely available. Bayer first sold a powdered version to hospitals and clinics until offering a tablet version in 1915, which was available over the counter without a prescription. It is widely considered the first modern, synthetic, mass-marketed medicine ever and has become a household name across the world. It was as ubiquitous on the battlefields of World War I as it is in households today.
When The Bayer Co. lost its patent to the term “aspirin” after the Great War, many other medical brands released their own aspirin products and variations. You can find some of these collectible aspirin tins available in our store, from long-gone brands like Spartan and Cloverine to old Bayer products like Lakerol Pastilles.
Before the invention of penicillin, there was no reliable way to treat infectious diseases. As a result, infections were the leading cause of death in 1900. Grave afflictions like pneumonia and tuberculosis filled hospitals and morgues. Still, small cuts and scratches could be as deadly, as minor infections often turned into blood poisoning.
Luckily, in 1928 an English doctor named Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, which proved effective against bacteria. This discovery heralded the beginning of the antibiotic age and is one of the most important discoveries in medicine. Penicillin wasn’t mass produced until World War II, where it saved countless lives on and off the battlefield.
Drug Store Remedies And Treatments—The Good, The Bad, And The Useless
The early 1900s was an era in which revolutionized manufacturing allowed treatments to become widely available to the everyday person. With this commercialization came useful products like aspirin, ointments for achy muscles, and laxatives. Unfortunately, a lack of regulation meant manufacturers could add just about anything to their medications and make unverified claims without penalty. As a result, dangerous concoctions were sold over the counter next to the benign with little oversight. Here’s a look at some of the medicines you might find at your local drug store in the early 20th century:
Thanks to the ubiquity of tuberculosis and pneumonia during the early 20th century, cough suppressants were a sought after and necessary drug. Unfortunately the main ingredient used to quell these coughs were highly addictive opioids like codeine, morphine, and heroin, as well as the sedative chloroform. They would even use stuff that would make your issues significantly worse like formaldehyde. While these ingredients quieted a cough, they led to an addiction epidemic that caused many deaths and broken homes throughout the country—not unlike today. Popular brands included Bayer’s One Night Cough Syrup and Kimball White Pine and Tar Cough Syrup, which remained on the shelves until such products were banned in 1924.
Laudanum for a Teething Baby
Another opioid-containing ingredient called laudanum, which was primarily used as anaesthetic during surgeries, could also be found in remedies to help teething babies. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, for example, was used to treat everything from teething pain and colic to dysentery in infants—and unfortunately resulted in many deaths.
Soothing Ointments Williams' Anti-Pain Ointment, Flood’s Ointment, and In-Step foot balm were used on everything from cuts, burns, and scrapes to achy muscles. Topical analgesics like Williams’ Anti-Pain Ointment boasted effectiveness against "headache, neuralgia, toothache, earache, backache, sore throat, rheumatism, sprains, bruises and sores.” However, these ointments rarely lived up to their bold claims. On the other hand, the same Vaseline we know today was already a household name back then and used during both World Wars to treat minor cuts.
Medicine shows touting concoctions that could “cure all” ailments were a mainstay during this time. So-called “doctors” touted these fake cures at traveling shows like carnival barkers. From cocaine to add pep and alcohol to soothe, and just about every ingredient in between, these mixtures were not only useless, but often dangerous. Also called “patent medicines,” these brands had colorful names like Dr. Flint’s Quaker Bitters, Dr. Bonkers Celebrated Egyptian Oil, Make-Man Tablets, Antimorbific Liver and Kidney Medicine, and Fatoff Obesity Cream. These cure-alls were not only useless, but they also posed such a danger to the American Public that Congress finally passed the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, requiring companies to disclose their products’ ingredients. Believe it or not, it turns out Stanley’s Snake Oil did not contain one ounce of oil from snakes!
Old Timey Medicine As Collectors’ Items
Luckily we’ve moved past the wild west that was early 1900s medicine, but the legacy of this period lives on in the form of highly collectible medicine tins and bottles from the era. From aspirins and laxatives to the more dubious cure-alls, you can find a wide variety of similar antiques from this time in our store. And if you enjoy rare antiques, be sure to check out our entire collection of vintage goods for that perfect gift for yourself or someone you know.