The name Tolu comes from the native pre-Columbian people who inhabited a area near the Caribbean Ocean in the Sucre Department of Northern Columbia. A small town named Tolu still exists there. The resin, leaves and fruit of the plant traditionally had been used by the peoples of Central and South America to relieve coughs and to treat wounds. In the hands of U.S. nostrum peddlers, however, it became “the Best Remedy for Pulmonary Diseases and General Debility connected with Loss of Appetite and Strength.”
That was the claim of Henry Bischoff, a Charleston, South Carolina, grocer and liquor dealer with a penchant for concocting medicines. Although the historical record on Bischoff is scanty, he appears to have emigrated from Germany to the United States before the Civil War. During that conflict he joined a Confederate cavalry unit known as the German Hussars as a second lieutenant. He married a local girl, Jenny Melchers, from a prominent German family in Charleston. Henry then settled down to run a profitable wholesale grocery, one that specialized in liquor.
Bischoff made no secret that his Carolina Tolu Balsam contained alcoholic spirits. In one ad he explained that in addition to containing tolu, other medicinals and rock candy, his potion also included rye and rice whiskeys. “This rice whiskey is commonly known as Arrack in the South and Samshoo in China,” he explained. “It has been used for many years by the Chinese and also by negro laborers in the southern rice fields as the only antidote to malaria and rice fever.” Despite this admission that alcohol was involved, the promoter did not hesitate to depict children in his advertising. Seen here is a trade card showing some innocent tots playing on a beach.
Most of Carolina Tolu trade cards had more jocular themes. It could be a large monk wolfing down a chicken drumstick while cradling a dollop of mashed potatoes on his fork, or a frog apparently making peace between a male mallard and his newly hatched chick. My favorite
is an angry looking bird with a large beak in which he is holding a placard for Carolina Tolu Tonic. The tonic sold for $1.00 a bottle, a day’s wage for many at the time.
If the funny stuff was on the front, the back of Bischoff’s trade cards was all seriousness. It promised to “cure” chronic coughs, consumption (TB) and all diseases of the throat and lungs. The tonic was claimed to have the “best recommendations from prominent physicians who, in the most obstinate cases, use it successfully among their patients.” As further evidence of the validity of Carolinia Tolu Tonic, Bischoff cited the fact that it had been verified as to its medicinal qualities by General Green B. Baum, the Commissioner of Internal Revenue. The product bore a proprietary medicine tax stamp which meant it could be sold by dealers without a liquor license.
Bischoff had competition in a Chicago outfit called Lawrence & Martin. They were listed in local directories as wholesalers of liquor and wine and importers of cigars. in 1880 they introduced a patent medicine called “Tolu Rock and Rye.” Like the Charleston quack, they heralded it as “the Great Cure for Coughs, Colds and Consumption and All Diseases of the Throat and Lungs.” A trade card from about 1881 shows a young buxom woman, presumably a sufferer from one of the referenced maladies, tarted up for a night on the town and drinking from a bottle of Tolu Rock and Rye. A second card showed an angel bearing a bottle of their tolu tonic, apparently bring a sheaf of rye to the process.
Business for both firms was apparently was brisk for a time. Bischoff opened a New York outlet. Lawrence & Martin in 1882 created a separate company, located at the same address, called the Tolu Rock and Rye Company. They also launched an ad campaign in druggists’ magazines that plugged their nostrum as a “sure cure.” As proof they cited a letter from Commissioner Baum similar to Bischoff’s. In it the revenue man stated: “This compound...in the opinion of this office, would have sufficient quantity of the Balsam of Tolu to give it all the advantages ascribed to this article in pectoral complaints, while the whiskey and syrup constitute an emulsion rendering the compound an agreeable remedy to the patient.”
Whether Baum’s laudatory judgment about medicine was highly flawed or he was receiving some compensation for his letter of endorsement remains unclear. Reputedly a military officer under Ulysses S. Grant, Baum may have been a holdover in the Internal Revenue position from the notoriously corrupt Grant Administration. The record indicates he later was removed from office.
The tolu boom proved to be short-lived. The Tolu Rock and Rye Company was defunct by 1883 and Lawrence & Martin disappeared from Chicago business directories by 1885. I have no information on how long Bischoff sold his Carolina Tolu Tonic, but the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 virtually put an end to nostrums claiming to be cures. Increasingly federal and state authorities, allied with the American Medical Association, were cracking down on proprietary medicines. In 1912, Baum’s exemption was repealed. Tolu Rock and Rye were placed on a list of “booze medicines” that required sellers to have a liquor license.
That left tolu to be used as a flavoring for candy and gum. The dry resin is said to have a complex taste and aroma consisting chiefly of cinnamon and vanilla. As early as 1873 a Louisville pharmacist named John Colgan was making a “Taffy Tolu Gum” by adding an extract of the plant to chicle. By 1890 the gum was such a success Colgan and a partner founded the Colgan Chewing Gum Company. Until he retired Colgan saw his tolu gum sold throughout the United States, Canada and Australia.
Today, according to sources, tolu is still an ingredient in some cough syrups. Its main use, however, is in perfumes, where its aroma is said to be valued for “its warm, mellow, yet somewhat spicy, scent.” Meanwhile, with tolu debunked, the world is still looking hard, but so far fruitlessly, for those “sure cures” for tuberculosis and malaria.