19th-century ‘Ambition Pills’ were supplements for men that promised to get rid of a variety of problems: impotence, sleeplessness, enlarged veins, and nervous debility. Unsurprisingly, a few decades after the introduction of those pills, a study found that their ingredients were questionable. In 1918, the Journal of the American Medical Association found that each pill contained “a little over one-thirtieth of a grain of strychnin” and that it was “possible for any one to purchase enough strychnin in a single box of Wendell’s Ambition Pills to kill an adult.”
The majority of Victorians had little knowledge on how diseases spread and what to do to treat them. Even the most educated ones were divided between the miasmatic theory and the germ theory of disease for decades; and physicians’ advice could be wildly contradictory.
Add to that hundreds of ‘cure-all’ drugs, which often were more harmful than the diseases themselves, and we get a picture of utter chaos and misinformation. No wonder many Victorians decided to trust more traditional remedies to which they were used, even if it meant using bizarre ingredients. One of the favorite traditional remedies were liquids and ointments with… earthworms. These products were used for bruises and were based on a recipe that had been around from medieval times! The worms were first boiled in oil and then broken up in a mortar and mixed with wine and other ingredients. Then the mixture was boiled and used in a liquid form on the bruises.
Have you ever heard of Turnspit dogs? If not, don’t worry, it might be because this breed used to be so common that people actually didn’t give it any second thought. Now extinct, these small creatures were described as “long-bodied, crooked-legged and ugly dogs, with a suspicious, unhappy look about them.” They were bred in order to run on a wheel (called a ‘turnspit) which in turn spun a cooking spit.
While it is said the dogs enjoyed running, their job was very taxing and dangerous due to the closeness of the fire. Because of that, at least two dogs would work in a kitchen, taking shifts on the wheel as needed. Some dogs could find “employment” elsewhere, for example in a progressive pharmacy, where the turnspit could be used as a giant, canine-powered pestle and mortar.
Several lucky Turnspit dogs spent their last years as Queen Victoria’s pets.
A baffling cough medicine recipe from Constance Moore’s “Hints on Health from the Victorians.” It goes without saying that you should NOT try it!
As we already know, the Victorians were obsessed with ghastly pale complexion which was supposed to give them a more aristocratic look. This also included stigmatization of freckles as they were associated with the working class and outdoor labor in general. In part, freckles were also seen as a health problem resulting from the overproduction of yellow bile by the liver. One of the ways to treat this ‘problem’ was to bring balance to the four humors, either by purging or bloodletting.
Those unwilling to lose their blood over freckles could purchase products which were supposed to “gently” get rid of freckles. However, even pharmacists at the time spoke against these products, as they often contained highly invasive and poisonous ingredients like arsenic or lead. And while the first results could have been promising (rashing and peeling skin would reveal some lighter skin beneath), long-term effect included permanent skin damage and heavy metal poisoning.
You may ask, “if they reeeally wanted to hide freckles, wouldn’t it be easier and safer to just put on some makeup?” Unfortunately color cosmetics fell out of favor at the time, when Queen Victoria deemed it vulgar and unfit for respectable ladies.
Check out this Sawbones episode for more weird historical “cures” for freckles!
Is there any image more Victorian than a lady collapsing on a fainting couch after learning troubling news? 💁♀️ The expectation that women would swoon whenever their emotions were heightened was so common that a bottle of reviving smelling salts could be found not only in a lady’s purse, but also a British constable’s pocket. 👃 More affluent women carried smelling salts in the form of soaked sponges closed in decorative, often silver containers called vinaigrettes. At the time smelling salts had already been known for centuries, but the knowledge of how they restored consciousness was not as widespread. While Victorian doctors and scientists knew about the effect ammonia gas had on the respiratory system, many people still believed the strong odor of salts helped by encouraging the wandering womb to come back to its place, echoing Hippocrates’ theories on female hysteria. 🤯
This comic was inspired by Lucyna who won the possibility to become one of the characters in a local charity event! 💜 If you would also like to become a character in one of the future comics, check out the Anatomist membership level on Veinity Fair Patreon.
Everlasting pill, also known as a perpetual pill, was a popular 19th-century medicine which was supposed to bring balance to the body’s humors by inducing purging. ⏳
The pills were made of metallic antimony, a highly poisonous substance that causes health effects similar to arsenic poisoning. 💀 Why was it called an “everlasting” pill? An antimony pill would pass through the gastric system practically intact, so people would retrieve it, clean it, and put away for later use. Antimony was also a valuable metal at the time, so it was quite common to keep it the family and hand it down from generation to generation. 👻
Check out this lovely book for more examples of useless medicine from the past: Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything.
💀 “RESTORATION of LIFE in CASES of SUDDEN DEATH.—For this benevolent purpose, Dr. SIBLY’s RE-ANIMATING SOLAR TINCTURE, supersedes every art and invention. In all circumstances of suicide, or sudden death, whether by blows, fits, falls, suffocation, strangulation, drowning, apoplexy, thunder and lightning, assassination, duelling, &c., immediate recourse should be had to this medicine, which will not fail to restore life, provided the organs and juices are in a fit disposition for it, which they undoubtedly are much oftener than is imagined.” 💀
This is how Dr. Sibly advertised his Solar Tincture ☀️ in the 1790s and early 19th century. A miracle cure that could cheat Death himself! 👻 While buying such a remedy seems ridiculous, many people could have been inclined to do so given the high mortality rate of the times, popular fear of being buried alive, and Sibly’s medical title (even though he had bought his degree). Another cure-all from Dr. Sibly’s shelf was the Lunar Tincture. 🌕 It was supposed to be the answer to all female problems, which according to Dr. Sibly were caused mainly by the lack of sex, too much sex, menstruation, lack of pregnancy, or menopause. You can find the original article on the Lunar Tincture in the Wellcome Collection archive but be prepared for constant eye-rolling. 🙄
More about the Solar Tincture in this Sawbones episode.