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  • Writer's pictureRochelle Gridley

The 19th Century Pharmacy


Early issues of the Pantagraph included advertisements for the druggists providing medicine in Bloomington. Those advertisements would provide lists of the various drugs available for sale, some of which, of course, were very dangerous drugs that could actually kill you.

Mercury, a highly toxic substance was considered to be helpful and safe and had names that would imply that safety. For instance, "calomel" which is listed in Curtis & Wells advertisement in 1851 meant "good black." It was given for the treatment of malaria, yellow fever and tape worm.

Curtis & Wells also provided opium to the public, but in what form we do not know. Sometimes it was combined with camphor (think Vicks Vaporub!) as an antidiarrheal medicine or cough medicine. Opium was a jack of all trades in the pharmacy. It had been used as early as the American revolution, and it is said that Ben Franklin took opium for relief of kidney stone pain. Laudanum was a liquid form of opium prescribed as a pain remedy. Late in the nineteenth century America had an opium epidemic similar to our present day opioid epidemic, with a less violent crime wave. The many injuries suffered by men in the Civil War and the ravages of childbirth had caused many normal people to develop an opium addiction. Women were more frequently addicts, due to pain resulting from the after-effects of childbirth.

The ad does not state the form of sulphur provided but an ad from England demonstrates one use of sulphur:

Seidlitz powders were an effervescing laxative preparation mixed with water which were used throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. One 1924 case study appearing JAMA was quite alarming, with a surgeon who had taken the powders being in such severe pain and having such exaggerated abdominal distention that it was thought surgery was necessary.

Epsom salts were used as a purgative -- internally! -- and turmeric/mustard was used in plasters as a topical treatment for coughs and croup. An online article from the Smithsonian has some interesting information. Rhubarb was used as another laxative medication. Apparently the Victorians were greatly troubled by their indigestion and bowels!

Besides drugs, the druggist sold paints, dyes, oils, glassware and "fancy articles." With so many dangerous drugs in the store, the dangers of the other substances in the store seem negligible. J E Parke's ad seems to state that the items in his list are ALL drugs, but what use lamp black could be in medical treatment is certainly a puzzle.

Having found this adorable ad artwork for cocaine tooth drops, I was devastated to find that this article may not have been available in 19th century Bloomington.

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