Spring Tonic | www.splicetoday.com
The Coen brothers The great Lebowski is more than a movie: it’s a kind of spring tonic to heal what hurts me. In a wonderfully absurd touch, iconic dragon mustache, leggings and cowboy hat Sam Elliott asks a bowling bartender for a sarsaparilla, a request # 19e-the bartender of the century would have considered strange. Sarsaparilla, while medicinal, contained enough alcohol to appear on the back shelf of a living room.
Victorian America believed in spring tonics: drugs to remove poison from the blood and tissue, cleansing the system of any remaining winter infelicity, and rehabilitating the body for the rest of the year. The practice lasted in the mid-1920se century: my father’s parents forcibly administered a mixture of sulfur and molasses to him to cleanse the blood. Sarsaparilla was an interesting alternative to these revolting home remedies.
The drink was distilled from the root of its eponymous plant. Known to botanists as Smilax medica, sarsaparilla is a thorny vine that blooms in Central and South America, Mexico and the old southwest. Its name is a Spanish compound: sarza (bramble) and parilla (small vine). The 19e The century-old American Puritans who gorged it with aches and pains were probably unaware that sarsaparilla was first introduced into European pharmacology in 1536 as an absolute specific – a complete cure – for syphilis. This was not the case. Two centuries later, sarsaparilla was relaunched as what doctors then called a conditioner, something tending to change a “disease state into a healthy state”. It became known as a blood purifier and a medicine for the spring. The evidence for the informality of early American medicine is that an entirely different plant, wild sarsaparilla, Aralica nudicalis (also known as American / Virginian / false sarsaparilla, rabbit root or wild licorice) was used in the composition of spring tonics because its roots resembled those of Smilax medica.
In the 1850s, the dark, fragrant, and naturally frothy drink distilled from the root of sarsaparilla was probably the most popular patent medicine in North America (the “patent”, when applied to medicine, originated from royal patents issued in colonial times which granted the patent holder exclusive right to market a particular drug; most post-revolutionary patented drugs were trademarks rather than patents because the exclusive rights to a patented formulation expired in the after 17 years). At that time, the advertisers of sarsaparilla claimed that it also heals stomach aches and colds and relieves sore joints. Some have said it will heal anything but a gunshot wound (and even those have claimed that applying powdered sarsaparilla root directly to the bullet hole can only help). In the 1880s, many brands were competing for business across the country. Their advertisements presented them as plant tonics, making them appear more natural and beneficial to health, and suggested that any violation of the laws of nature (left tactfully undefined) could be corrected by immediately and consistently consuming the right brand of. sarsaparilla.
This shameless publicity reflected ruthless competition. Bristol Sarsaparilla, produced by CC Bristol of Buffalo, NY, has been described as “of near unprecedented fame” and has triumphed over the disease in the worst cases, “bringing the approval of medical school” . Dr Easterly’s sarsaparilla was “six times stronger” than any other brand and had cured over 25,000 cases of disease in three years, including “3,000 scrofula, 2,000 dyspepsia, 1,000 gout and rheumatism, 2,000 general debility, 2,500 liver disorders, dropsy and gravel; 1,500 complaints from women; and 6,000 syphilitic or venereal coughs. And why should one stack with a single sarsaparilla when one could use Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Renovation Solver?
People used these nostrils because then, like now, a doctor’s prescription was more expensive than an over-the-counter remedy. In addition, in the absence of doctors nearby, border settlers often had to self-medicate. Finally, even legitimate doctors seemed not far removed from charlatans. As recently as 1870, Dr. Calvin Ellis, Dean of Harvard Medical School, asserted that “written exams could not be given because most students could not write well enough.” Soon after, he received a letter from Charles Warren Eliot, the president of the university, demanding that Dr Ellis implement written exams, which he did.
Perhaps the best-selling sarsaparilla was Ayer’s, which rose to fame thanks to massive publicity. James Cook Ayer, MD (University of Pennsylvania, 1841), began brewing remedies in the back room of his pharmacy in Lowell, Massachusetts. In 1870 he was advertising his products in 1900 newspapers and magazines. He filled hundreds of thousands of bottles daily, labeled them with paper from his own factories, and shipped them around the world by his own railroad. He introduced Ayer’s sarsaparilla as “a drug with such concentrated curative power that it is by far the most economical and reliable drug that can be used …” an impure, depleted or scrofulous state of the blood “and was the best remedy for dyspepsia, liver and kidney disease, jaundice and dropsy.
Yet JC Ayer was just one of hundreds of manufacturers of patented medicines. In New York City, Dr Brandreth’s Vegetable Universal Pills employed dozens of workers at its Broadway factory spanning a square block.
Advertisements for patented medicines filled major newspapers and magazines and covered the sides of barns and cliffs. For example, the March 5, 1914 issue of Reporter Antrim, a rural New Hampshire weekly with a circulation of a few hundred, had 18 advertisements for patented drugs, six of which were of the regular type as if they were news stories with the abbreviation “Adv.” at their ends. Examining period newspapers with an eye for advertising might lead one to believe that everyone was suffering from female or male weakness, worn out kidneys, or consumption. These were, if you credit the ads, best handled by self-medication with over-the-counter nostrils such as Kickapoo Indian Sagwa by Texas Charlie Bigelow, Wizard Oil by Doc Hamlin or Fluid Lightning by Cram.
There was a reason sarsaparilla was said to clap when it heals. Like most drugs patented before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was passed, sarsaparilla contained incredible amounts of alcohol. This may explain a quality attributed to good sarsaparilla: it never freezes, whatever the temperature. Nostrils such as Dr. Hostetter’s Celebrated Stomach Bitters were 94 proof of this. Others, like Dr. King’s New Discovery for Consumption, “the only safe remedy for consumption in the world,” mix morphine (to suppress coughs) and chloroform (a euphoric) to control symptoms. tuberculosis without treating the disease.
By then, the establishment’s opinion had rejected sarsaparilla as a drug. The 1911 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica described it as “pharmacologically inert and therapeutically unnecessary”. That same year, the Connecticut State Agricultural Station, after analyzing Ayer’s and eight other medicinal sarsaparillas, found that they were “of the most complex composition, containing not only sarsaparilla but yellow dock. , stillingia (another ‘blood cleansing root’), burdock, licorice, sassafras, mandrake, buckthorn, senna, black cohosh, poker foot, wintergreen, cascara sagrada, cinchona bark, bark ash, glycerin, potassium and iron iodides and alcohol. Although some of these ingredients have medicinal effects (quinine comes from cinchona bark; senna and cascara sagrada are mild cathartics), Newspaper of the American Medical Association therefore argued that sarsaparilla was so complex that it was unnecessary, although generally harmless.
The Pure Food and Drug Act devastated the patented drug industry by reducing the legally permitted alcohol content of patented drugs to 25 percent. Nonetheless, medicinal sarsaparilla experienced a brief revival during Prohibition. After all, a drink with 25% alcohol by volume is always proof of that. But after the repeal in 1933, sarsaparilla fell into disuse. Many argue that today’s root beers, flavored with sassafras, are no different from sarsaparilla. However, the handful of manufacturers who still brew sarsaparilla, most with consciously cute names like Ol ‘Bob Miller’s Sass’parilla, claim their products are real sarsaparilla, made only from the root of Smilax medica, with a milder and less potent taste than root beer, which can be combined by mixing almost any root, herb or bark imaginable. Either way, it all seems irrelevant: Ol ‘Bob Miller’s, like Olde Style Sarsaparilla by AJ Stephen, Crazy Ed’s Original, Baron’s Boothill, Old Mill, SodaWerks by Dirty Dawg Sass’parilla, or Hansen’s Sarsaparilla. (sold in a 14 oz bottle which one online reviewer says looks like “an uncircumcised penis”), consists largely of distilled water, vanilla extracts, a natural sweetener such as honey or cane sugar and artificial flavors, with sarsaparilla added only as a natural flavor. Even the water is carbonated: apparently the manufacturers don’t use enough sarsaparilla root to make the drink naturally frothy. And none contain alcohol.
But whether used as a powder or as a tea, outside or inside, sarsaparilla root is gaining renewed interest among New Agers as a treatment for a bewildering variety of ailments. A website dedicated to natural medicines claims that sarsaparilla is “good for gout, rheumatism, colds, fever and catarrhal problems, as well as relieving gas … skin problems, scrofula, ringworm and pacifiers … purifies the urino-genital tract … has a tonic action on the sexual organs … would excite passions, making men more virile and women more sensual … it can be used as a wash for genital wounds or the herpes, or as a hot fomentation for painful and arthritic joints.
It looks like an advertisement from the good old days.