“Baby Killer” Nostrums

November 20, 2017

Nothing could have seemed more harmless than the picture of a mother and her baby with the words, “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup for Teething Children.” Trouble was, the nineteenth-century pacifying nostrum contained morphine!

The product was attributed to a Mrs. Charlotte N. Winslow, reportedly a midwife who also treated children. She formulated it in 1835, and in 1844 she shared her recipe with her son-in-law, Jeremiah Curtis, of Bangor, Maine. He and his business partner, Benjamin A. Perkins—both druggists—marketed Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup as early as 1849. The Curtis & Perkins enterprise moved to New York City in 1854; it changed to Jeremiah Curtis & Son from 1860 to 1880, when it became the Anglo-American Drug Company ( Fike 2006, 231; “Mrs. Winslow’s” 2013).

Promoted in various advertisements—calendars, recipe books, and trade cards (like the chromolithographed one of 1887 shown here from the author’s collection)—it was sometimes billed as “likely to soothe any human or animal.” (It was commonly sold in an approximately 5-inch tall cylindrical vial of aqua glass.) It was marketed widely—both in the United States and the United Kingdom (“Mrs. Winslow’s” 2013).

Mrs. Winslow’s and similar products came to be called “baby killers,” especially once it became known what they contained. Mrs. Winslow’s—like another such pacifier, Kopp’s Baby’s Friend—contained morphine sulfate (the latter having one-third of a grain per fluid ounce). Mrs. Winslow’s also contained alcohol. Another deadly product (formula unknown to me) was Monell’s Teething Syrup. Infant deaths were recorded for all three products (Nostrums 1911, 317-318). Others (for which information on ingredients is lacking) included Mother Bailey’s Quieting Syrup, DeWitt’s Soothing Syrup, Gauvin’s Syrup for Babies, Dr. W. Evans’ Teething Syrup, Mrs. Whitcomb’s Syrup for Children, Dr. Winchell’s Teething Syrup, and Windsor’s Soothing Syrup (Fike 2006, 223-231).

After passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 (effective January 1907) and condemnation by the American Medical Association (Nostrums 1911), Mrs. Winslow’s soothing syrup was reformulated (no details are given) and the word soothing removed. It was advertised as late as 1948 (Fike 2006, 231).

References

Fike, Richard E. 2006. The Bottle Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Historic, Embossed Medicine Bottles. Caldwell, NJ: The Blackburn Press, 231.

Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup—oooh so soothing. 2013 Online at http://www.peachridgeglass.com/2013/01/mrs-winslows-soothing-syrup-oooh-so-soothing/; accessed September 29, 2017.

Nostrums and Quackery. 1911. Chicago: American Medical Association; reprinted London : Forgotten Books, 2015.

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