Merchant’s Gargling Oil
The keys to success in quackery are to come up with something that “cures” a multitude of complaints, advertise the bejeebers out of it and sit back and wait for the money to roll in. If you can extend the panacea’s remit to include the animal kingdom, so much the better. This was the route adopted by the purveyors of George W Merchant’s Gargling Oil and it served them in good stead for almost a century.
The liniment, launched on the unsuspecting American public in 1833, was intended to cure burns, scalds, flesh wounds, a bad back, piles, tooth ache, sore throats, chilblains and chapped hands. According to the adverts “Merchant’s Gargling Oil is a diffusible stimulant and carminative” – so you could use it to deal with flatulence. – “It can be taken internally when such a remedy is indicated, and is a good substitute for pain killers, cordials and anodynes. For Cramps or Spasms of the Stomach, Colic, Asthma, or Internal Pain, the dose may be from fifteen to twenty drops, on sugar, or mixed with syrup in any convenient form, and repeated at intervals of three to six hours.”
The first thing to note is that despite its name it could be applied externally as well as internally. Secondly, it was marketed as good for animals as well as Homo sapiens. Apparently, horses went mad for it. Initially, there was just one version of the liniment but from the 1870s there were two distinct versions – in yellow for animals and in a lighter colour for humans. Never mind if you could only get your hands on the animal version, you could still use it. The ads did warn, though, “it will stain and discolour the skin, but not permanently.”
The Gargling Oil made extensive use of advertising. As well as the standard newspaper ads, there were almanacs, song books and stamps. In the 1870s Darwin’s evolutionary theories and the suggestion that man descended from apes was causing waves. Disraeli noted “Is man an ape or an angel? My Lord, I am on the side of the angels. I repudiate with indignation and abhorrence these new-fangled theories.” The stushie was too good for the copywriters for Merchant’s Gargling Oil to miss and they ran a series of ads featuring an ape with the quatrain, “If I am Darwin’s grandpapa/ It follows don’t you see/ that what is good for man or beast/ is doubly good for me.”
So what was in it and was it any good? The former is the easier question to answer as the adverts were unusually forthcoming. It was a mix of petroleum, soap, ammonia water, oil of amber, iodine tincture, benzene and water. It is hard to imagine what possessed Merchant to knock up this concoction but as it must have tasted awful, the instruction to take it with sugar must have been very welcome.
As to its efficacy, it is not clear. It would have been messy to apply and the petroleum base may have been off-putting but it evaded the attentions of the Food and Drug Association. What did for it was a serious fire at the Merchant factory in Lockport in New York in 1928 which completely destroyed the building – I wonder if the Gargling Oil was flammable? – and it was so destructive that the company never got back on its feet again. It did leave us, though, with some wonderful adverts.