UDH Hdr-Mirror Lake 1888


Patent medicine manufacturer

You never know what you'll find at the flea market. A couple weeks back, at the South High Drive-in Flea Market, I found the answer to a mystery.

For years, I'd been aware of the Olive Tablet Company building at 29 E. 5th Ave. I even knew that the tablet they made was some sort of medication. Beyond that, I knew nothing. My wife found the answer in a box of dusty old bottles, rusty tools, and sundry junk: two tins of Dr. Edwards' Olive Tablets, manufactured in Columbus, Ohio.

This is the story of University District resident Dr. Frank M. Edwards and his little green pills.

Constipation was a national obsession in the early 20th Century.

The American diet wasn't great. Writing in McClure's in 1906, Dr. Woods Hutchinson, a leading physician of the day, proclaimed: White flour, red meat, and blue blood make the tricolor flag of conquest. Fruits, vegetables, salads, and dark bread he dismissed as the foods of fanatics, old maids, and backward peoples. His opinions on nutrition were widely shared.

In the early 1900s, heaping helpings of butter and lard, along with eggs, milk, cream, and cheese were ingredients in almost every dish. Fatty gravy was drizzled over everything. White flour was much used. Due to the shortcomings of transportation and refrigeration, people went months without seeing fresh fruits or vegetables. Even when fruits and vegetables were in season, they were usually consumed mashed, boiled, pickled, baked, or fried as parts of some fatty or sugary recipe.

High fat and low fiber was a formula for disaster.

Discomfort wasn't the only reason constipation was on American minds. Prevailing medical orthodoxy advanced the idea of auto-intoxication. It was believed that a clogged colon could sicken the body. Toxins and pathogens seeping from the festering contents of a blocked colon were believed to poison the body of the sufferer. By the retention of fecal matter, the blood is poisoned... This is followed by many serious results, such as asthma, headache, rheumatism, nervousness, insomnia, eczema, etc. All these and finally worse troubles may result (Dr. Young's Radical Remedy, 1919)

Doctors, pharmacists, and patent medicine manufacturers blamed auto-intoxication for everything from headaches, pimples, bad breath, failing eyesight, and lack of energy to arthritis, cholera, typhus, liver failure, heart disease, lupus, and cancer, as well as sexual depravity, madness, and death.

Health-conscious American were urged to do whatever it took to get their colons moving. As Dr. Charles Bouchard put it in Auto-Intoxication (1894): Man is constantly standing on the brink of a precipice; he is continually on the threshold of disease. Every moment of his life he runs the risk of being overpowered by poisons generated within his system. Self-poisoning is only prevented by the activity of his excretory organs.

Digestive tract, 1884

Above: Rectal dilation, the mechanical loosening of the anal sphincter, was one of the more extreme self-treatments for constipation and fears of auto-intoxication.

Empires were built on America’s troubled colons. The Kellogg and Post cereal companies were two of the businesses that grew up trying to repair the consequences of the American diet. J.H. Kellogg was particularly obsessed with constipation and held it to be at the root of all the body's ills. He advocated a vegetarian diet, high fiber, and a daily dose of mineral oil.

For people seeking quick relief without a lifestyle change, scores of drug-makers offered products of varying worth. There was Analax, Choco-Lax, Sweet-Lax, Fruit-Lax, Tasty-Lax, Carmelax, Trya-Lax, Tak-a-Lax, Fam-Lax, Klok-Lax, and Dream-Lax as well as Orderlies, Regulators, Regoids, and Regs and the pills of Drs. Carter, Hollister, Hitchcock, Blackburn, Blackstone, Shoop, and many others. (A great collection of early 20th Century laxatives can be seen here.) There were also several varieties of bitters that purported to cure constipation via a tiny herbal infusion dissolved in about 18% alcohol and 80% water.

There were also practitioners who claimed to cure constipation via colonic irrigation, massage therapy, rectal dilation, electroshock, and surgical shortening of the colon.

Americans' excretory worries were big business...