A wry view of life for the world-weary

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Forty Seven


Carter’s Little Liver Pills

It is that time of year, I suppose, when you give your body a bit of a bashing. If you had felt that your liver was a bit sluggish at the end of the 19th and early 20th century, you may well have reached out for a bottle of Carter’s Little Liver Pills which were phenomenally successfully on both sides of the pond.

Made by Carter’s Products of New York City from around 1868 from a concoction formulated by Samuel J Carter of Eerie, Pennsylvania, they were heavily promoted by adverts which boasted some extremely fine artwork. One such advert, printed in the Illustrated London News from 16th July 1887 features a splendid black crow holding in its beak a banner bearing the Carter logo. Other proclaimed that the pills “positively cured” torpid liver and that they “relieve distress from Dyspepsia, Indigestion and Too Hearty Eating”.  “They regulate the bowels and prevent constipation”, it goes on – no wonder as the active ingredient was bisacodyl which is a form of laxative. They are “purely vegetable and do not gripe or purge but by their gentle action please all who use them” A phial contained 40 pills and sold for 1 shilling and a penny halfpenny.

In 1929 Henry Hamilton Hoyt Snr took over his father-in-law’s business and expanded the range of products they offered. Amongst the new products was Arrid deodorant available from 1935, Nair hair remover (1940) and Rise shaving cream (1949). During the Second World War they manufactured many health-related products including foot powder for the military. But despite this, the company could not dispel the suggestion that the Liver Pills weren’t much cop.

Over time in the States increasing legislative attention was paid to advertising that was a little economical with the actualite. The Wheeler-Lea Act of 1938 made illegal “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in commerce” guaranteeing protection to consumers and allowing them to initiate suits against malefactors rather than having to wait until competitors did so. Nonetheless it took 16 years, some 11,000 pages of testimony and 750 exhibits before the Federal Trade Commission was able to persuade the Supreme Court to force Carter’s to remove the word Liver from their packaging. Even then, other than some adverse publicity, no penalty was exacted on the firm and all they did was repackage the pills as Carter’s Little Pills in 1959.

In the 1980s the pills continued to be marketed in the now familiar red and black labelled cylinder, although plastic was now used instead of metal, and the claims for the product were somewhat toned down – relieving sluggishness, that bloating feeling, headaches and drowsiness, but only if those symptoms were accompanied by constipation. It is still available today, although it is now known as Carter’s Laxative and the active ingredient is still bisacodyl with inactive ingredients including acacia, carnauba, gelatin, lac, magnesium stearate, polyvinyl acetate, talc, white wax and others.

Questionable as a medicine as it may have been, the Liver Pills made a mark culturally. It spawned a popular saying in the mid 20th century, “he/she has more (insert noun as appropriate) than Carter has Little Liver Pills” and as late as 2000 Senator Robert Byrd is quoted as saying “West Virginia has always had four friends, God Almighty, Sears Roebuck, Carter’s Liver Pills and Robert C Byrd”.


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