During the early 19th century, infant mortality rate in Britain was 25%. The rates in the U.S. were probably not much better.
One of the “illnesses” that parents were warned about was something every child goes through – teething. The Dental Cosmos (and many other dental authorities) advocated lancing the child’s gums to relieve the pressure and make it easier for the teeth to erupt. For parents facing a screaming child, there were other remedies, among them the ever-popular Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. It was advertised especially for teething babies.
Sounds like the answer? It appeared in New York in the 1840s and according to legend was created by Mrs. Charlotte N. Winslow and marketed by her son-in-law. Like many of the patent medicines of the time, it was advertised for many childhood ailments, in addition to teething pain. For children who took it, it most likely stopped their crying. Unfortunately, its effects were sometimes serious – and permanent. Two primary ingredients in this “soothing syrup” were morphine and alcohol, both of which must have packed a heavy punch on small bodies.
Mrs. Winslow’s was just one of many “medicines” that claimed to cure all manner of ills. Many people did not realize that such medicines were loaded with alcohol, morphine, and heroin, among other drugs, all of which were legal at the time.
By the 1860s people were starting to awaken to the dangers of opium abuse. By the 1870s, opium addiction was a recognized problem. Importation of crude opium reached its peak, along with the rise in patent medicines, by 1896.
Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was so popular that it was still being sold (although without its more potent ingredients) as late as 1930. What finally stopped this “baby killer” was public awareness its dangers and also the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. Prior to the act, the ingredients in these patent medicines did not have to be disclosed.
The Pure Food and Drug Act was the first federal law regulating food and drugs through interstate commerce. This was the first occasion of penalties for “misbranding” and “adulteration” of products.
Under the new law, if a product contained any of 10 ingredients deemed addictive or dangerous (among the 10 opium, cannabis, alcohol, or morphine) it had to list them on the product label. Finally, people knew exactly what they were pouring down their little darlings’ throats and the dangerous of such medicine marketed to children. The law did not ban such strong substances (that would come later), but made the public aware that they were in the miraculous potions they were purchasing.
Thankfully, today teething is no longer looked upon as a dangerous disease of childhood and we’ve got safer remedies to turn to to alleviate the pains associated with it.
About the blogger
Guest blogger Jenn Ochman, Database Publishing Production Specialist in the Branding and Communication Department at Benco Dental, dedicates her time outside work to historical reenactment. She shares knowledge of dental history with TheDailyFloss.com readers on a monthly basis.