Having endured another series of Call The Midwife – the plot line is that a woman gets pregnant, there are complications, there’s a lot of screaming, pushing and breathing and a sprog pops out – I realise why women might want to find ways to make the process of pregnancy and labour as comfortable as possible. So common is pregnancy – indeed, the survival of the human race depends upon it – that it offers an enormous opportunity for the unscrupulous proponents of quackery to exploit.
One company who seized the opportunity was the Bradfield Regulator Company, based in Atlanta, Georgia, who peddled a liniment called Mother’s Friend for around 30 years in the States and Canada from the 1880s. Selling at $1 a bottle, its virtues and properties were lauded in the advertisements placed in the press. One, dating from 1899, advised that it was for “expectant mothers to use externally. It softens the muscles and causes them to expand without discomfort. If used during most of the period of pregnancy, there will be no morning sickness, no rising breasts, no headache. When baby is born there will be little pain, no danger and labour would be short and easy”. No wonder there were plenty of people willing to give it a go.
Some of the adverts were almost lyrical in their proclamation of the liniment’s amazing powers. “To young mothers we offer not the stupor caused by chloroform with risk of death to you or your dearly loved and longed for baby but an agent which will if used as directed invariably alleviate in the most magical way the pains, horrors and risks of labour and often entirely do away with them…” Others had a rather troubling eugenic twist to them. In an advert dating from around 1901 a Kentucky attorney-at-law is quoted as saying, “before the birth of my last one, my wife used four bottles of Mother’s Friend. If you had the pictures of our children, you could see at a glance that the last one is healthiest, prettiest and finest-looking of them all”.
An advert from 1902 went to great pains to satisfy the reader that there wasn’t the faintest trace of opium, morphine and strychnine which many rival birth medicines contained. That’s a relief, then, but it begs the question what was in the liniment and was it effective?
For many a quack, the Food and Drugs Act (1906) began to make life a little difficult. With its extravagant claims, the Bradfield Regulator Company soon came under official scrutiny. On two occasions in 1909 consignments of Mother’s Friend were seized and subjected to scientific analysis. The good news was that as the advert had stated, there wasn’t a trace of a noxious drug amongst the ingredients. The bad news was that there wasn’t really much to the much-vaunted liniment. The investigators found that it consisted of some oil, probably vegetable, and some soap. It was unlikely to cause harm but would barely alleviate the traumas of childbirth.
Mother’s Friend continued to be sold but it went through what we would term today as a bit of rebranding and market repositioning. It was marketed as a massage oil designed to help with dry skin and the aches and pains of pregnancy. When the brand was acquired by the S.S.S Company it became a body lotion and is still available today. As the website says, “keep all your skin smooth and supple before, during and after pregnancy with the creams that moms have used for generations”.
The power of a placebo is a wondrous thing.