What Was in an Old Time Medicine Cabinet?

My grandparents have lived in the same house for over 60 years. While things have changed since they first moved in, as children gradually moved on and out the extra spaces around the house didn’t necessarily get cleaned out, leading to all sorts of things piling up from various decades. Even things that were on the counters in the bathroom 30 years ago are still there. My recent trip to visit my grandparents led to a unique opportunity to see how some commonly-found bathroom products have changed over the years.


Listerine actually coined the term “halitosis” almost 100 years ago in order to create (and thus solve) the visibility of bad breath and increase their market base. Before being used for bad breath, Listerine was used as an antibacterial/antiseptic for cleaning.  The old Listerine contained slightly less alcohol and three active ingredients, while the new Listerine has a higher alcohol content and all the same active ingredients in almost the same amounts (plus one additional one). The new Listerine adds polymers, preservatives, and colour.

The old: Listerine Antiseptic (150 mL) – For bad breath, plaque, irritated gums, and sore throats due to colds. Ingredients: Alcohol (22%), eucalyptol (0.091%), thymol (0.063%), menthol (0.042%).

The new: Original Listerine Antiseptic Mouthwash (1.0 L) – Kills germs that lead to plaque, bad breath, and gum disease. Helps to reduce gingivitis. Ingredients: Water, alcohol (26.9%), benzoic acid, poloxamer 407, sodium benzoate, caramel, eucalyptol (0.092%), menthol (0.042%), methyl salicylate (0.06%), thymol (0.064%).


Epsom Salts

Epsom salts are and were magnesium sulphate crystals. Nowadays most people use epsom salts externally in their bath water to help reduce muscle aches and pains, kill fungus, add volume to their hair, or soothe their skin, but epsom salts were once sold in smaller quantities as a laxative (as seen on packaging).

  Flowers of Sulphur

Also known as flowers of brimstone, flowers of sulphur is a bright yellow powder of sulphur. Its traditional personal use is as a laxative (as seen on the container) or as a killer of fungus or a skin treatment. Today sulphur is found in dandruff medications and psoriasis and rosacea treatments, among others, to treat various skin ailments. Flowers of sulphur are no longer a drug store staple, but they are available online from some vendors.


Zam-Buk Medicated Ointment

This product was first sold in 1902 as a herbal balm and antiseptic ointment used for treatment of cuts, bruises, sprains, freckles, ulcers, haemorrhoids, colds, and toothache. In the early 20th century, its ingredients were paraffin wax (66%), colophony (20%), eucalyptus oil (14%), and “a small amount of other ingredients.” Now sold by Bayer (since 1998), Zam-Buk claims to treat aching feet, bruises, burns, cuts, chillblains, itching and rashes, mosquito and insect bites, scalds, and sores. The modern list of ingredients is obscured by a number of different formulations. All seem to contain eucalyptus oil, camphor, and thyme oil, but other ingredients include paraffin/petrolatum, beeswax, colophony, and sassafras. Some claim to additionally treat athlete’s foot, chafed skin, pimples, and eczema.


BFI Antiseptic First Aid Dressing and Surgical Powder

Standing for bismuth formic iodide, this powder was used since 1906 for drying up and clearing bacteria from burns and other minor wounds. It is also said to ease pain. Despite glowing reviews from those who can get their hands on it and who used it throughout childhood, the manufacturer supposedly discontinued the product in 2013 due to the FDA calling it dangerous and ineffective. From what I can find, its full ingredient list was alum, bismuth subgallate, bismuth-formic-iodide, cineole, magnesium carbonate, menthol, pentyloxyphenol, thymol, and zinc p-phenolsulphonate.


Watkins Medicated Ointment

Watkins began in 1868. Watkins medicated ointment is currently marketed as “For the temporary relief of aches and pains of muscles and joints associated with backache, lombago, strains, bruises, sprains, and arthritic or rheumatic pain, pain of tendons and ligaments. For tired aching muscles.” Modern ingredients are paraffin, petrolatum, camphor (5.3%), and menthol (2.8%). I cannot find information about whether or not the ingredient list has changed over the years.


Williams Lectric Shave Before-Shave Lotion

With the advent of the electric razor, men apparently found that they weren’t getting as close a shave as with a manual razor. Williams Lectric Shave promised to “dry perspiration, set up hairs, and lubricate the skin” for a closer shave “with any electric razor.” An older (but not original) formulation of this product included water, fragrance, benzophenone-1, SD alcohol 40B, D&C orange 4, green tea leaf extract, yellow 10 aluminum lake, D&C green 5, isopropyl myristate, and trisodium EDTA. All I can find about the original formulation is that it “contained enough alcohol to close the facial pores and lift the whiskers away from the skin a tad as well as some isopropyl myristate for a bit of lubrication.” The old version is a very pale green as opposed to the more concentrated green of the modern formulation, so it would make sense that the old one had fewer dyes.


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