Victorian tonics: Cure-alls or cure-naughts?

If you’ve ever wondered why we need federal regulatory agencies like the Food and Drug Bottle of Huxley’s ‘Ner-Vigor’, England, 1892-1943Administration, you need look no further than the Victorian period, in which there were no such things and everyday patent medicines could contain anything whatsoever.

Dangerous cure-naughts

J. Worth Estes notes, “Congress passed the 1906 Food and Drugs Act in the wake of repeated observations that many over-the-counter remedies were ineffective as cures or even dangerous.” The previous century had seen a boom in the production and use of such remedies. Gone were the simple herbs prepared at home or by the local apothecary from time-honored recipes. In came the elaborate concoctions in dark-colored bottles with attractive labels, guaranteed on the basis of nothing to cure absolutely everything that might ail you.

Huxley’s Ner-Vigor was sold as a strengthening tonic for the nerves and to improve digestion. Made by the Anglo-American Pharmaceutical Co Ltd, based in Croydon, the tonic was prescribed for clinical depression, neurasthenia, anemia, rickets, and sciatica. It was suggested that a teaspoonful should be added to half a wine glass of water and drunk three times a day after meals. Like some other medical products of the period, it contains a very small measure of the highly dangerous poison strychnine. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library

Tone your system

Tonics tone. They strengthen and invigorate blood, nerves, and muscles. These systems operated browns-household-panaceathroughout the body, so if you strengthened them, you would strengthen everything.

Victorian doctors didn’t use the humoral system, but they continued to believe that each kind of personality was prone to its own maladies. They continued to use the humoral temperaments to characterize these types and added the neurotic type – highly responsive to changes in nerve force.

[There are four humoral temperaments: “sanguine (enthusiastic, active, and social), choleric (short-tempered, fast, or irritable), melancholic (analytical, wise, and quiet), and phlegmatic (relaxed and peaceful.)” From Wikipedia.]

These convenient personality catchalls persisted in the public mind long past their day (centuries) in medical science. Tonic makers capitalized on the notion that many ailments were linked by a common underlying cause, such as weak nerves or thin blood.

“Both physicians and patients visualized the body as a dynamic system in which every part of the body interacted with every other part and with its environment.”

Estes quotes a label from the 1880s for Pond’s Extract listing all the things it could cure: “Catarrh, Chafing, Soreness, Sunburn, Influenza, Lameness, Chilblains, Hoarseness, Cuts, Sore Throat, Piles, Inflamed Eyes, Boils, Insect Stings, Burns, Rheumatism, Bruises, Female Complaints, Woulds, Chapped Hands, Sprains, Mosquito Bites, All Inflammations and Hemorrhages.”

In short, anything that burned or itched. Sounds like an excess of choler to me.

Value what goes in by what goes out

Estes notes, “The state of one’s health was interpreted as reflecting a balance – or imbalance – between input and output, between nutriments and excrements. The doctor’s primary weapon against disease was his ability to use drugs to ‘regulate his patients’ secretions’ – feces, urine, sweat, and menstrual flow.”

This belief goes a long way back — all the way back, I think, but you could consult Roy Porter’s short history of medicine, Blood and Guts. Or read my post about it. Illnesses are substances lurking inside the body that have to be flushed out or imbalances, which have to be corrected by reducing the excessive element.

Four categories of medicine

Like the humors, by the late nineteenth century, it was actually four plus one.brainsalt

First we have the Tonics, for strengthening the body and its fibers (nerves, muscles, and veins.) These became increasingly popular as urban populations boomed, because people believed that city life sapped the body of its vital forces.

“The classical time-honored tonic was Peruvian bark.” Aka quinine, often supplemented by another popular import from the Andes, cocaine.

Second category are the Blood Purifiers, said to remove toxic materials from the blood so it could do its job more effectively. This idea is still current and if you scour your local natural food store’s “nutritional supplement” aisles, you’ll find lots of choices.

Third come the Cathartics, used to cleanse the bowels. We must keep those bowels clean! Fiber does that for us, but if you live on highly processed foods, increasingly possible in Victorian times, you don’t get that effect. Many patent medicines were cathartics – very popular stuff. Unhealthy diets aside, as Estes has observed, people like medicine that makes something happen — the more dramatic, the better. We see lots of cathartics in the diet-trickery aisles at drug stores today.

Fourth are the Oxygenators, which increase the body’s oxygen supply. I can’t find any examples of this in my search of many seconds on the Internet. Getting up and doing yoga for ten minutes will increase the oxygen supply to your brain, but I don’t suppose it does anything for seasickness. Brain Troubles is too broad a category to contemplate.

Last come the Nerve Stimulants, quite the money-spinners in their day. Nerves were everything, what with all the crowds and noise and press of business. Life was more complicated and full of stressors that drained the body of its vital force. A dollop of Ner-Vigor or perhaps a small glass of Coca Wine would recharge those batteries in a trice.

A peek under the label

I studied the ingredients of these patent medicines with great attention while doing my research for Moriarty Takes His Medicine. I was hoping to find undetectable methods of committing murder. I didn’t calomelhave to look far. Those little brown or blue bottles were chock-full of deadly chemicals. With the exception of arsenic, none could be detected after death with any reliability. People had a great fear of being murdered by such means and with good reason!

Mercury, aka quicksilver, has long been used as a medicine. One of its common ores is called cinnabar, which sounds delicious. Mercurious chloride, better known as calomel, was the active ingredient in the omnipresent blue pill, a powerful purgative used to treat syphilis and fevers, as well as indigestion. Everyone had a box or bottle of blue pill in their medicine cabinet.

But John Emsley, my trusty guide to murder by metals, says, “A person’s reaction to mercury is unpredictable.” Some can tolerate large amounts, others are so sensitive they die within seconds of injecting a mercury-based drug. Mercury poisoning is characterized by symptoms such as timidity alternating with aggression and anger, lack of concentration, loss of memory, depression, insomnia, listlessness, and irritability. Just so you know.

Arsenic, of course, is an old favorite, both for medicine and murder. Small doses act as a stimulant, perking people up. Also horses — cheaters would dose their horses before a race. Lots of famous mineral springs, including Ojo Caliente near Taos, New Mexico and Vichy, in France, contain trace amounts of arsenic.

Several patent cosmetics included arsenic, such as Dr. Simms Arsenic Complexion Wafers, which180px-Vin_mariani_publicite156 was said to produce “a beautiful transparency,” remove wrinkles, brighten the eyes, and raise the spirits. If you could get a drug that did all those things through the FDA today, you’d make a fortune.

Arsenic was regarded as a cure-all throughout the century. It was prescribed for neuralgia, syphilis, lumbago, epilepsy, and skin disorders. Take 12 drops 3 times a day for 1 week. Total arsenic, 120 mg. Add the drops to water or wine.

The Marsh test, developed by James Marsh and published in 1836, was the first reliable test for the presence of arsenic in the body, finally giving people a fighting chance against their murderous relatives and household servants. Even so, someone would have to suspect murder and insist that the death be investigated. If you chose your victim wisely and were judicious with your timing, you could still get away with it.

Besides, in those days, juries were very skeptical about so-called scientific evidence. They wanted witnesses and confessions, not a bunch of mumbo-jumbo about chemistry. A good defense attorney could get you off by casting doubts and aspersions on any forensic evidence.

cocaine_tooth_dropsAntimony, aka tartar emetic, was another heavy metal commonly employed in patent medicines, also falling into the cathartic category. In small doses, tartar emetic acts as a diaphoretic: it promotes sweating, lowering the body temperature. In larger doses it acts as an emetic. Vomiting begins within fifteen minutes. “Thus the poison acts as its own antidote to a certain extent.”

Antimony was prescribed for depression (melancholia.) It was used by women to suppress the sexual demands of partner and was a patent cure for alcoholism. Then again, heroin was used for a short time as a cure for alcoholism.

Cocaine is not a metal, but a plant-derived alkaloid. It’s properties as a local anesthetic were discovered in 1884, although its virtues as a stimulant had been known for some time, having been observed by Europeans in Peru. Cocaine was an excellent source of vigor and strength. “[I]t vitalizes and enriches the blood, tones up the system, makes the weak strong, builds up the broken-down body, invigorates the brain, and, as a result, cures many conditions including dyspepsia, nervous diseases, paralysis, chronic diarrhea, and generalized debility.” (Estes, p. 13.) Until it wears off and you feel twice as bad as you did before. Oh, well — better take another dose!

These medicines weren’t employed only by the gullible or the uneducated. Charles Darwin took arsenic regularly to treat a tremor in his hands. Thomas Henry Huxley periodically took strychnine and quinine, whenever he felt anxious about his health or suffering from the melancholy that plagued him all his adult life.


Emsley, John. 2005. The Elements of Murder. Oxford University Press.

Estes, J. Worth. 1988. “The Pharmacology of Nineteenth-Century Patent Medicines,” Pharmacy in History, Vol. 30, No. 1 (1988), pp. 3-18.

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