In 1902, an advertisement ran in a local newspaper that, shockingly to our modern ear, read as follows:
"In girlhood there is a great need of motherly watchfulness and care. A growing girl needs all her strength, and if she is nervous and melancholy, and loses appetite, there is surely something wrong. This is especially true as the young girl approaches that important period of change when the womanly function is established. Timely care and proper treatment at this period may save much after suffering.
"The best medicine for girls who are nervous, melancholy, and irregular of appetite is Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription. It cures nervousness, dizziness and melancholy, promotes the appetite, and gives the body robust health. There is no alcohol in "Favorite Prescription" and it is entirely free from opium, cocaine, and all other narcotics."
The patent medicine that was commercially known as Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription was immensely popular at the time. Dr. Pierce's Buffalo, New York-based company sold nearly two million bottles per year for numerous years. Undoubtedly, many mothers my area partook of the advertised product.
While perhaps the entire ad was in many ways disturbing, the last sentence may have particularly piqued your curiosity. Advertising that it was free of opium and cocaine?
This was economically necessary at the time, as the nation's foremost family magazine, The Ladies Home Journal, published in the same year a scathing expose on the product. In it, it was revealed that an independent lab analysis had determined the medicine’s all-botanical ingredients: savin, cinchona, agaric, cinnamon, water, acacia, sugar, digitalis, opium, oil star anise and alcohol.
Dr. Ray Vaughn Pierce, a licensed physician and free enterprise mail-order pharmacist who was also elected to the U.S. House of Representatives (but, ironically, had to resign at the age of 40 due to "ill health"), promptly sued the magazine for $200,000 over the article which he deemed libelous. He insisted that his concoction did not, nor did it ever, did contain alcohol, opium or even digitalis.
The Journal did all it could, chemically sampling hundreds of bottles, but found no opium or alcohol. The courts sided with Dr. Pierce; the Journal backed down and paid up. It was later determined that, not being at all regulated, Pierce had simply discontinued the inclusion of the narcotic and spirits after the original analysis and prior to the Journal article.
While it was not unusual for a patent medicine to include an extremely potent and addictive narcotic such as opium (from which heroin is derived), it did perhaps explain the product's vast and long-term popularity. It must be remembered that even an iconic product such as Coca-Cola, in 1902, still contained – for proprietary reasons – traces of the extract of coca leaves, cocaine.
However, the real controversy about this fashionable product was shadowed by the looming debate over the narcotic. Little known to many, it was the herbal contents that were perhaps the basis for the commercial demand for the medicine by mothers purchasing it for their daughters. Some of the herbal ingredients were fairly benign:
Herbalists claim that oil star anise promotes proper digestion, cinchona produces a chemical in the body similar in nature to quinine that acts as a natural painkiller and agaric (produced from deadly poisonous mushrooms) inhibits perspiration. In a world that was pre-antiperspirant, young women must have coveted this effect. Digitalis is well know for its ability to increase blood pressure while decreasing pulse rate, thus perchance calming all those poor nervous young ladies.
More sinister though are the last two. Without much doubt, mothers – far more knowledgeable of herbal remedies than today’s counterparts – knew of the effects of these plants and winked at each other as they insisted their daughters take the elixir for their 'feminine problems'. Acacia is believed to dampen sexual appetite and response. Then there is savin...
Savin has been used for thousands of years; it is believed that the Romans discovered the extract of the European juniper berry's effects on the female body. Medicinally, it is known as a strong emmanagogue. That is a fancy word for anything that induces menstruation. If this savin-based medicine were taken regularly by a young woman, even if she were to have an egg fertilized, it would not implant. She would always menstruate. In theory, she could not get pregnant.
Our world, which wrestles with the morality of everything from birth control pills to the morning-after pill, is often thought to be radically dissimilar from 'the olden days'. Perhaps, we are not all that different.