Saturday, July 18, 2015

Vintage Vermifuge: A Wormy Idea

 When my mother was a little girl growing up on an Ohio farm, the lore among her playmates was that if you thought you had a tapeworm the remedy was to swallow one watermelon seed a day for 12 days and on the 12th day the tapeworm would be expelled.   My mother several times ate a watermelon seed for 11 days but could never bring herself to swallow the 12th, fearing what might emerge.  For others a “vermifuge” was the answer.
Rural children, especially those in the South, who were going barefoot or eating bad meat,  were plagued with intestinal parasites.  It is estimated that after the Civil War,  half of Southern children had hookworm.   Against this plague, a wide array of remedies, called “vermifuges” were produced by patent medicine firms.  Dozens of those products aimed at expelling worms, many containing in excess of 10% alcohol, were advertised widely and bought by anxious parents.

One of the earliest peddlers was B. L. Fahnestock of Pittsburgh.  Just when this gentleman, shown on a trade card, began his quack medicine enterprise is not clear but his was among the drug houses listed in Pittsburgh in 1829.  By the time this ad for his vermifuge was issued he had been in business almost 30 years.   One worm-fighting concoction bearing the Fahnestock name had the such ingredients as tincture of myrrh, oils of wormwood and anise, croton oil (a laxative), and turpentine.  
Another early vermifuge was from the E & S Frey Company of Baltimore.  Beginning about the same time as Fahnestock, its ads called upon parents to watch for symptoms in their children.  Those included gritting of teeth, nose picking, and upset stomach.  “Rid your child’s body of these ruinous parasites,” it implored.    If its trade cards are to be believed E & S Frey did business for more than half a century.

The verisimilitude of the vermifuge pitches apparently was believed to be enhanced if they came from a “doctor.”  One of the most inventive in his advertising approach was “Dr. D. Jayne.”  Born David Jayne in Philadelphia about 1798, the this nostrum peddler spent most of his life in Philadelphia concocting cures. 

Jayne was responsible for one of the most intriguing ads for a worm-killer to be circulated.  It shows a young woman in Middle Eastern dress with a blonde baby who gazes directly out at the viewer.  Could this be a depiction of the Madonna and Child?  But no.  Look closer, the baby is in a wicker basket.  This is the child Moses and his mother after he has been found in the bulrushes of the Nile River by the Pharaoh’s daughter, as per the Biblical story.  Shown left, the discovery scene was caught on a trade card issued by the Jayne firm.  
What Dr. Jayne put into this elixir is not clear, but he recommended it as a “family remedy” for both adults and children.   “It will remove dyspepsia and restore tone to the Stomach and is a certain destroyer of Worms.”  Other fraudulent advertising warned about the horrors of worms in a child, noting that they produce “…such irritation and debility as will surely break down the constitution, if the cause is not removed may bring on St. Vitas Dance or  Convulsions and render its after life a burden.”  To save your child, Dr. Jayne’s was the answer.

Dr. H. F. Peery was another huckster who featured a vermifuge.  Shown here is one of his medicine bottles.  He called his potion “Dead Shot,” and claimed that it was “…capable, from the promptitude of its action, of clearing the system in a few hours of every worm.”   Dr. Richard Cannon, the guru of patent medicines, has speculated that this approach appealed to consumers who sought quick action.  Whether it worked was another matter.
The label of Dr. C.M. McLane’s “Celebrated American Worm Specific or Vermifuge”  from a Pittsburgh drug firm named Fleming Bros. raises economic questions.  It advertised a one-half ounce bottle for 25 cents.  While that might not sound like much, at the time the average worker made only about $1.00 a day.  This would be about a quarter of a day’s pay for a very small amount of the remedy but nonetheless a financial sacrifice for some poor families.
In order to make the purchase seem worthwhile, Dr. McLane and other resorted to attractive trade cards with cautionary tales on the back.  The one shown here has a testimonial from a “John Piper” who cheerfully notes that after giving Dr. McLanes’s Vermifuge to his children “Charley passed forty-five and Johnny about sixty worms.” 

To complete this lineup of worm-killers is a bottle from the Van Vleet-Mansfield Drug Company of Memphis that also sold an extensive line of liquors.  It might have held the product that the firm called “Sweet’s Honey Vermifuge,” advertising it as a “perfectly harmless” preparation for children. Under the 1906 Food and Drug Act, however, Van Vleet-Mansfield were convicted of a patent medicine fraud in 1912. 

Although the name gave the impression that there was honey in the product, none could be found by U.S. Bureau of Chemistry.  Instead the ingredients were alcohol, senna (herb laxative), Epson’s salts, table salt, sugar, coloring and santonin (a poison).   As reported by the American Medical Association:  “The stuff was misbranded because of false and misleading statements regarding the quantity of alcohol, it contained no honey, and any preparation containing santonin is not “perfectly harmless” to children. “  Van Vleet-Mansfield pled guilty and was fined $10, a mere slap on the wrist.

In summary, it appears that my farm girl mother and her companions were wise to choose the watermelon seed worm cure.  It likely was just as effective as many of the vermifuges being sold, definitely safer, and certainly a lot cheaper — even if my mother could never swallow that twelfth seed.

1 comment:

  1. My dad had often commented about "Frey's Vermifuge". They were given routine doses of it when he was a child. He said of all the medicines given to him as a child, this tasted the absolute worst. He repeated this many times during his life such that I remembered the name of the medicine.