Sunday, April 17, 2011

Lady Mutton's American Soothing Syrup

Mrs. Johnson's American Soothing Syrup The Illustrated London Almanac 1869
The Illustrated London Almanac, 1869
Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup was a very popular, very dangerous opium-laden syrup sold through the 19th century as a children's medication. But Mrs. Winslow was not the only lady selling opiates for the masses. Mrs. Winslow's syrup was sold from 1849 into the 1930s, but Mrs. Johnson, in England - nicknamed Lady Mutton in the Regency era, for reasons you will learn at the end of this post - had been selling her medicine for decades before Mrs. Winslow ever thought of putting syrup into bottles.

In 1873 an advertisement for Mrs. Johnson's American Soothing Syrup stated that there were a "number of cheap preparations that have lately been forced upon the public by parties jealous of the great success of the Original" which "contained no narcotic nor any dangerous ingredient whatever [italics are Mrs. Johnson's] while opiates are the foundation of all the recent imitations."

Mrs. Johnson's Syrup had been advertised in Britain as early as the 1810s. It was probably the "American Soothing Syrup" that is mentioned by John R. Strachan in Advertising and Satirical Culture in the Romantic Period (2007, p. 60). He writes that the Regency-era advertisement played upon mothers' anxieties about their children's teething, and the illnesses that might follow from teething: in particular, convulsions, measles and what the 1810 advertisement called "chill-cough." The same American Soothing Syrup was also advertised in 1827 (see here) as being not only a "healing Balm for assuaging misery and anguish" but as a means of telling whether sovereigns were good or bad by dunking the coins in the syrup (which would put me off trying it, even in 1827).
Mrs. Johnson's Syrup Whitaker's Almanac 1848
Whitaker's Almanac, 1848

Yet even in the 1820s, some people were aware that the American Soothing Syrup was a dangerous fraud, full of opiates. In a book called The Family Oracle of Health (1824) the author writes about

...another piece of American humbug, which goes by the name of the "American Soothing Syrup," and which is puffed off in the usual way by sweet Mrs. Johnson, of the City road, well known by the alias of Lady Mutton, she being, or having been, in the practice as we are well informed of making presents of genuine grass-fed haunches to mercenary preachers, and others who sell themselves to sermonize and expatiate in public and private, on the miraculous virtues of the soothing syrup.

So what was in sweet Mrs. Johnson's Syrup? In 1824 the Book of Health stated that American Soothing Syrup contained "simple syrup*, tincture of opium and alum, colored either with saffron or alkanet-root" (p. 104). And according to Isaac G. Briggs' Epilepsy, Hysteria and Neurasthenia (1921, p. 13), it contained "spirits of salt, common salt and honey" - as well as large quantities of opiates, in direct contradiction (what a surprise!) of her advertisements.

Part Two: More about Lady Mutton and her American Soothing Syrup. I've found a few more rather amazing tidbits, but need another post to tell you about them.

*A plain syrup of sugar and water, unflavored.


Relax Max said...

Well, I'll be. You just can't trust anyone in the snake oil business anymore.

When you say Opiates, I assume you aren't speaking of Ron Howard and his fun little friends? I thought not.

Well, here's mutton your eye.

Marcheline said...

Wow... amazing that anyone grew up at all in those days, what with being fed opium and riding around with no seatbelts... running with scissors... sitting five inches from the TV set...