Research Rabbit Hole – Just Your Average, Everyday Drugstore Poison

So how many over the counter “medicines” could have killed you in the early 20th Century? A lot. I found this amazing ad for Hook’s Pharmacy in Muncie, Indiana (1921) while researching. Take a gander. Recognize any of the products listed?

Not a lot, right? For the most part, I had no clue what these items were. Bombastically vague product names seemed to be in vogue at the time. I looked them all up (because, of course I did) and found that most of those listed are what we consider patent medicines, and they fall into four major categories (potentially deadly ones have an asterisk after the name):

  1. All Purpose Pep and Vigor Restorers:
    1. Botanic Blood Balm – Promised positive and permanent relief from “blood poison,” and to quickly cure “old ulcers, scrofula, eczema, itching skin and blood humors, cancer, festering sores, boils, carbuncles, pimples or offensive eruptions, pains in bones or joints, rheumatism, catarrh, or any blood or skin trouble,” as well as “female weakness” and “hereditary taint.”
    2. Gude’s Peptomangan – To provide a direct supply of minerals; to help build hemoglobin in the blood and stimulate the appetite so that more iron is absorbed from food
    3. Make Man Tablets* – For those who are “nervous, tired, irritable, don’t sleep good, wake up every morning with a bad taste in your mouth and a dull, hot, tired feeling in your head”. Splendid tonic, blood purifier, and nerve strengthener. (the main ingredients were arsenic and strychnine – yay!).
    4. Morse’s Indian Root Pills – Its manufacturer claimed the pills contained herbal ingredients that would help “cleanse the blood,” as “impurity of the blood” was believed to be the cause of all disease.
    5. Wampole’s Phospho Lecithin* – for Nervous Prostration, Nerve Exhaustion, Nervous Excitement, Hysteria, etc. (with strychnine – yay!)
    6. William’s Pink Pills for Pale People –  Claimed to cure chorea, referenced frequently in newspaper headlines as “St. Vitus’ Dance,” as well as “locomotor ataxia, partial paralyxia, seistica, neuralgia rheumatism, nervous headache, the after-effects of la grippe, palpitation of the heart, pale and sallow complexions, [and] all forms of weakness in male or female.”
    7. Youth Gland – “Cured” extra strain on the gland tissues brought on by sickness, age, worry or overwork.
  1. Laxatives and Digestives
    1. Carlsbad Sprudel Salts – Mineral salts used for gastric irrigation taken by mouth and through enemas
    2. Cascaroyal Pills –  Blackburn’s Casca Royal Pills treat the bowels wisely and well, a rational physic and stomachic relieve constipation
    3. Eatonic – For flatulence and bloating
    4. Edward’s Dandelion Pills – “Purely vegetable tonic and cathartic” “For constipation, liver and kidney diseases, scrofulous affections and all diseases of the stomach and bowels”.
    5. Green’s August Flower – Dyspepsia
    6. Pluto Water – strongly laxative natural water product which was very popular in the United States in the early 20th century.
    7. Sal Hepatica – mineral salt laxative that was produced and marketed by Bristol-Myers from its inception in 1887, becoming its first nationally recognized product in 1903, until 1958. When dissolved in water, it was said to reproduce the taste and effect of the natural mineral waters of Bohemia.
  1. Vanity
    1. Albolene Solid – Facial Cleanser
    2. Canthrox – a granular shampoo marketed to prevent dandruff, falling hair, and graying.
    3. Charles Flesh Food – Beautifier ointment that “builds firm healthy flesh”
    4. Westphal’s Auxiliator – Hair tonic (with a terrible name)
    5. Wyeth’s Sage and Sulphur – Hair tonic that contained sulphur, lead acetate, glycerine, and cayenne pepper (but not sage).
  1. General Weirdness and Outright Quackery
    1. Alkalithia*-Trade name of an effervescent mixture containing lithium (yay!); employed in the rheumatic and gouty
    2. Death Dust – Insecticide (This wins for best name, imo. Surprisingly, it wasn’t deadly to humans since it likely only contained borax and pyrethrum – made from dried chrysanthemums).
    3. Ozomulsion – “Cure” for consumption (tuberculosis) (Right…)
    4. Schiffman’s Asthmador* –To relieve the distress of bronchial asthmatic paroxysms (with belladonna – yay!)
    5. Philadelphia Bird Bitters – Medicine for sick birds – just like it says (???)
    6. Trypsogen Tablets – Diabetes remedy said to contain “the enzyme of the islands of Langerhans with the tryptic and amylolystic ferments of the pancreas” (???)
    7. Vapo Cresoline – Vaporizing lamp supposed to cure “Whooping Cough, Spasmodic Croup, Nasal Catarrh, Colds, Bronchitis, Coughs, Sore Throat, Broncho [sic] Pneumonia, The Paroxysms of Asthma and Hay Fever, The Bronchial Complications of Scarlet Fever and Measles and as an aid in the treatment of Diphtheria and Certain Inflammatory Throat Diseases.” (Of course, it did none of those things.)

If you’re tempted to think of the past as some sort of glorious “simpler” time, chew on this – the first two categories of patent drugs above had flourishing sales due to the poor diet of the time – lots of iron deficiency, anemia, and constipation among the general population. Fun! And several of those “medicines” could outright kill you while they claimed to solve such problems. One in the ad just might kill a character in the 3rd book in my Viv and Charlie Mystery Series. (Of course, I’m not going to tell you which medicine. Where’s the fun in that?)

Patent medicines went the way of the dodo in the late 1930s due to more stringent food and drug acts passed by the US government. It’s for the best, but I still think it’s fascinating all the potentially deadly stuff you could’ve purchased at the local drugstore in 1921. And if you’re like me, it certainly makes knocking off that troublesome character in your latest book a lot easier…

Research Rabbit Hole – Could You Contact Someone on a Moving Train in 1939?

In Book #3 in the Viv & Charlie Mystery Series, I had to have a way for a person to be able to contact another person while that second person is on a train traveling cross country. Was that even possible in 1939? The answer, surprisingly, is yes.

Telegraphy was a completely wire-dependent method of communication (just like telephones were once upon a time). Wires were strung from telegraph office to telegraph office. Those wires carried the signals that were then translated into words on telegrams. No wire, no office/telegraph operator = no telegram. Ah, but train stations did have telegraph offices. In 1939, you could send a telegram to a train station and have that telegram delivered to a person on a train that stopped at that station as it was making its way cross country. But in order to do that, you not only needed the name and number of the train, the direction of travel, the stop, the time the train stopped at that station, but also the name, and car number of the person traveling that you wanted to reach. Logistically sticky, but possible, yes, and possible is all I need to include in the story.

 

This a still of a telegram being delivered to a passenger on the famous Santa Fe Super Chief from the 1954 movie, 3 for Bedroom C. (The Super Chief is in my Book #3!)

Most people these days associate telegrams with tragedy – since the only way we’ve seen them represented is in war movies where they have the scene of the mother receiving news of her son’s death by special delivery telegram.

But before WWII, telegrams were commonly used for any cheap long distance communication (good, bad, and neutral news included). Long distance telephone service existed then, but it was crazy expensive. In 1950, a 5-minute call between New York and LA cost $3.70 (That’s $38.07 in 2017 dollars!)


Western Union was the most popular company and they charged the sender by the word, so writing a telegram was an art unto itself. Here’s a whole Telegram writing guideline from 1928 if you really want to get into the weeds.

And here’s an extra video of a telegram delivery man doing tricks on his route just for fun. Enjoy.

Research Rabbit Hole – All Aboard the Millionaires’ Special

FortyMillionairesOnOneTrain_Tribune1907

I spent the weekend in Lake Geneva, WI, and happened to pass the spot where the original train station stood. The location is the most depressing of suburban bank branches now (the railroad ended service to Lake Geneva in the 1960s), but there’s a historical marker out front that mentioned the “Millionaires’ Special”, and I did a little jig of joy. That train appears in the 3rd book in the Viv and Charlie Mystery Series! (Vivian’s grandfather was a titan of the meatpacking industry (on par with Armour and Swift) and took the famous train on summer weekends from Chicago up to his estate on Lake Geneva.)

I found a Chicago Tribune article from July 21, 1907 in which an average man (he says he has 45 cents to his name) takes the Millionaires’ Special and describes what he sees. It’s a strange article – most of spent dropping names and tallying the collective worth of the men on board the train. You can read the PDF version of the full article by clicking this link: Forty Millionaires on One Train. But beware, the Chicago Tribune editorial department of 1907 seemed to have quite a tolerance for run-on sentences.

“The 3:45 train to Lake Geneva is a popular one, even on ordinary days, but on Fridays the crush is so great that the road decided upon a train which has been nicknamed the “millionaires’ special.” The regular train, for “common folks” who are not worth more than $100,000 or so, is made up as usual, but it is run as the second section, while a gorgeously equipped train, with one of the fastest racing engines on the road and six parlor cars, is sent out in the lead.
On ordinary days the 3:45 train stops at half a dozen stations, but on Fridays the millionaires’ special is destined for Lake Geneva, and, from its first rush out of the Wells street train shed until it flashes into Lake Geneva it never even hesitates -but flies through towns and cities and hamlets at sixty miles or more an hour. At Lake Geneva, at the head of the lake, a great part of the millionaires alight, and then the millionaires’ special whirls on around to Williams Bay to unload the remainder of its precious human freight.”

I got curious about where exactly (estate-wise) all of the important millionaire’s name dropped in this article were going, so I got out my trusty Lake Geneva: Newport of the West 1870-1920 book and looked them up.

Four of the men mentioned have estates that are still standing:
1. Edward Swift – He was the son of Gustavus Swift founder of Swift meatpacking of “everything but the squeal” fame. He built Villa Hortensia which looks almost the same as it did when built in 1906.

VillaHortensia
2. N. W. Harris – He was a banker and founder of what would become Harris Bank. He owned Wadsworth Hall – which is now the Driehaus Estate and has been restored to look as it did when built in 1906.

WadsworthHall
3. A. C. Bartlett – He had House in the Woods built through the winter of 1904/1905 under a 3-ring circus tent so it would be ready as a gift for his wife in the spring. It’s still standing and restored to look as it did when built.

HouseInTheWoods
4. Charles Wacker – He was a Chicago brewer and the director of the 1893 Columbian Exposition held in Chicago. You may recognize his name from Wacker Drive. He built Fairlawn in 1894. It still exists as a private residence and looks as it did when built.

Fairlawn
Two that are gone, but still interesting:
1. John J. Mitchell – He was the dean of Chicago Bankers. He owned Ceylon Court in 1907. Ceylon Court is also mentioned in Book 3. It was actually the Ceylon Pavilion from the 1893 Colombian Exposition – disassembled and reassembled in Lake Geneva and converted to a private residence. It was torn down in the 1950s.

CeylonCourt1933
2. Harry G. Selfridge – He was a retail magnate and founder of Selfridge’s department store in London. You may know him from the fictionalized portrayal of him in the PBS show, Mr. Selfridge. He built Harrose Hall in mock Tudor style complete with large greenhouses and extensive rose gardens. Unfortunately, it was razed in 1975.

Harrose Hall Lake Geneva

The Millionaires’ Special may be long gone, but lest you think Lake Geneva’s days of pricy estates are long past – I saw listing in the window of a realtor this weekend for a lakefront property going for a cool $18.5 million.

Research Rabbit Hole – Using the Telephone

How would you dial long distance in the late 1930s? Ah, trick question. You wouldn’t. You’d have to call the operator and tell her (her because telephone operators were almost always young women then) that you’d like to place a long distance person-to-person* call. Then you’d give her the location and person’s name (and the number if you had it). Your local operator would probably transfer you to another operator in the receiver’s town or general location to complete the call. That operator would dial the receiver directly, wait for them to answer, and then come back on the line to tell you to proceed. If you were calling from a pay phone (like my character) the operator would then tell you to deposit a certain amount of money (in coins) for a certain number of minutes. You’d be warned when time was almost up to deposit extra money. You could, if you were slick, trick the pay phone into releasing the money you’d just put in and keep using the same coins over and over. Long distance telephone calls were extremely expensive at that time, however, and most people opted to send a telegram instead. (I’ll write about that in another post.)

Here’s a 1930s pay phone in action:

And here’s an AT&T Operator training film from 1938 if you have a spare 20 minutes or so.

You could direct dial local calls in the late 1930s.  Telephone numbers were only 4 numbers long with a lettered prefix exchange name attached. (Area codes did not exist – or rather, they did, but only operators used them.) For example, Charlie’s office phone number in The Darkness Knows is HAR-7998.  (HAR for Harrison corresponding to 427 on the telephone dial). Here’s a list of Chicago area prefixes if you’re curious. Some of these are specific to Chicago locations and some were used as generic prefixes all over the country.

Private home phone lines were very expensive in the 1930s, and so most people opted for party lines. That was when several houses close to each other would share the same phone line and the expense. Usually each house had their own distinct ring to let them know an incoming call was for them. The problem with this, of course, is there was usually that one neighbor that loved to gab and always hogged the line. On the flip side, that meant a lot of opportunities for eavesdropping on your neighbors since all you had to do was pick up the phone to hear their conversation… if that’s your sort of thing.

*Person-to-person didn’t mean direct phone line to direct phone line. It meant the call wasn’t completed until the actual person being called answered the phone. So if you called Mr. Smith at Smith’s Furniture the call wasn’t complete when the receptionist answered – only when Mr. Smith himself came to the phone.

Research Rabbit Hole – Eloping in Chicago

Welcome to what may become a semi-regular feature here. Often I find myself getting hung up on a tiny historical detail that pops up while I’m writing. I go to Google thinking I’ll find a quick answer…  then 2 hours later I’ll look up and realize a huge chunk of time has been lost researching something I didn’t really need to research in the first place. The problem then is that I find myself with all of this interesting knowledge that doesn’t really fit in any of my books, and I just have to share it with somebody. So that’s you, lucky reader! For example, I found myself with a burning desire to know about marriage laws and the logistics of how an amorous couple from Chicago would go about eloping in 1939. (This relates to two sentences in book 3, by the way, and it’s taken hours of research to find the answer I was looking for. And no, I don’t think sharing that tidbit with you is a spoiler – in case you’re worried.)

If any of you read Regency romances you’re probably familiar with the oft-used trope of a couple running off to Gretna Green, Scotland to elope. (For those of you not familiar, Scotland had very lax marriage laws in the late 18th to mid 19th centuries and Gretna Green was right over the border. So English couples could dash off and be married quickly – not like in England where there were stricter laws in place.) And I think we’ve all seen the old movies or TV shows where a couple hauls a justice of the peace out off bed in the middle of the night to marry them… I don’t know about you, but I’ve always wondered if that actually happened. (Amazingly, it could have.)

Apparently, Kenosha, WI (very near where I currently live) was the Gretna Green for Chicago in the late 19th century or at least in 1894, according to this newspaper article below. Then Wisconsin added a residency requirement for a marriage certificate. Good-bye, quickie Wisconsin weddings.

kenosha_gretnagreen1894

Waukegan, IL seemed to be lobbying to become the Gretna Green for Chicago residents after this. No offense, Waukeganites, but I can’t imagine anyone wanting to honeymoon there like this article asserts. But things were different in 1899, I suppose.

waukegan_gretnagreen_1899

During Prohibition many states passed “gin marriage” laws to install a waiting period after obtaining the marriage license before the ceremony itself could go ahead – presumably so the participants had time to sober up and think about whether marriage was really the best idea. A “hygienic marriage law” was also passed in many states, including Illinois in 1937, meaning that couples needed to prove they didn’t have venereal disease (syphilis, in particular) to obtain a marriage license. No surprise that applications for marriage licenses plummeted in Cook County shortly thereafter. That’s because couples were flocking the roughly 40 miles east to Crown Point, IN* to elope since Indiana was one of the few neighboring states that still had very relaxed marriage laws (The only law in force there at the time was that you could not be a minor and obtain a marriage license. I guess everything else was fair game?)

The verdict? After all of this research, I found that the answer to my original question was, sadly, no. A couple from Chicago would not likely have run off to a local Gretna Green to get married on the spur of the moment in 1939. It seems Crown Point had quite a booming business in elopements for most of the first part of the 20th century – until January 1938, that is, when Indiana stopped issuing marriage licenses to women who did not reside in the Indiana county in question. Indiana’s own hygienic marriage law soon went into effect shutting down the “marriage mills” for good. This article from January 1909 is an interesting read about the quickie marriage business there when it was still booming.

crownpoint_gretnagreen1909

There were other places a Chicago couple in love could have gone to get hitched quickly in 1939 – Missouri, for example, but that was quite a drive over bumpy and unreliable roads. Might as well get your blood test and go through the waiting period and not have to travel across the entire state suffering potholes, am I right?

Ah, romance.

P.S. After I did all of this research I came upon this Post-Tribune article from June of this year that uses almost exactly the same source info. Good thing I didn’t find it first. That would have ruined all my fun. 🙂

*Incidentally, Crown Point, IN is the home of the “escape proof” Lake County Jail that John Dillinger broke out of in 1934 using a hand-carved wooden gun blackened with shoe polish. But to go into that would be a rabbit hole within a rabbit hole, wouldn’t it… ?

Come Back in Time with Me

Black Point

One of the things I love about writing historical fiction is that it gives me the excuse to take the day off and explore beautiful places like the Black Point Estate on Geneva Lake, WI. This Victorian Queen Anne “summer cottage” (I was told it can be called a cottage since it has no insulation and not habitable in the Wisconsin winter) was built by a beer baron in 1888 when Geneva Lake was known as the “Newport of the West” and remained in the family until it was donated to the state of Wisconsin about ten years ago. It’s only accessible by the general public via boat – which only adds to the romance of the place, in my opinion. It’s gorgeous and might just be the basis for a location in Book #3 of the Viv and Charlie Mystery Series (hint, hint).

If you’re at all curious for what may be happening to Viv and Charlie in Book #3, you can also check out my Pinterest board on the subject.