Whitehead’s Essence of Mustard
One of the keys to success for a prospective practitioner of the art of quackery was an extensive and effective advertising campaign. Newspapers of the early part of the 19th century were full of adverts proclaiming the benefits and efficacies of Whitehead’s Essence of Mustard, unleashed on to the world by Robert Johnston, an apothecary, who operated from Greek Street in Soho.
This pharmacological wonder came in two forms – as a carate for external use and as an essence or as pills for internal consumption, the former retailing for 1 shilling and a penny halfpenny whilst the latter was considerably more expensive, retailing at two shillings and nine pence. The adverts claimed that the essence was available at all pharmacists throughout the land. Prospective customers were warned to avoid imitations. The real McCoy had a black ink stamp with the name of R Johnston inserted in it.
So if you were seduced by the blandishments of the copywriter what would the essence do for you? Naturally, the adverts were fulsome in describing its wondrous properties. It was effective in dealing with the likes of rheumatism, palsies, gouty affections and stomach complaints. Chilblains, a common complaint and the source of terrible itchiness and severe pain when they suppurated and broke, were cured when the essence was applied externally. The fluid essence would cure the severest of bruises and sprains.
The essence was patented in 1798. In those days in order to register a patent the inventor had to submit a detailed description and specification of how to make their product but no one bothered to test the recipe. Our quack submitted a long detailed and complicated description of how to make the essence such that it was almost impossible to replicate.
But even then some smelt a rat. A correspondent in the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal at the time wrote, “what a motley group of ingredients does this prescription present! The medicine, it is obvious to those who understand anything of chemical pharmacy, cannot be prepared according to the form which is here specified on oath, and what is sold at the shop of the patentee has been examined, and found not to be compounded of the articles mentioned”. The Medical Observer went even further by suggesting that the government should have a warrant for Johnston’s arrest and punish him.
So what was in it? The ingredients seemed to have consisted of oil of turpentine together with spirit of rosemary and camphor with a modicum of flour of mustard added. Whether it was really efficacious is hard to tell although turpentine had long been used to treat chilblains. And mustard seeds have been used for medicinal purposes since the days of the Ancient Greeks and Romans and they are thought today to inhibit the growth of cancer cells, particularly in the gastrointestinal tract and the colon. They are also an excellent source of selenium.
So the essence may not have done you any harm and may actually have helped your condition. Judging by the number of adverts that were published for this panacea the stushie that Johnston ran into following the granting of his patent doesn’t seem to have affected business. After all, all publicity is good publicity!