Cascarets Candy Cathartic
“Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down…”
Mary Poppins had the right idea, of course. Who wouldn’t rather take their medicine candy-style? As it turns out, the relation between candy and medicine has quite a history. Today, I have for you the story of what I believe to be the first medicine in the U.S. to be marketed nationally as a candy: Cascarets Candy Cathartic.
Cascara, the ingredient suggested by “Cascarets,” is derived from the bitter tasting bark of a species of buckthorn tree native to North America. Cascara had been prescribed by druggists and physicians as a remedy for constipation and related ills as early as 1877. But it was not until 1894 that the Sterling Remedy Company came up with a candy version which would turn out to be a huge blockbuster.
Cascarets were made as brown octagonal tablets reputed to have a “pleasant taste–almost as pleasant as chocolate.” They were put up in rectangular tin boxes of six tablets designed to nestle easily in a vest pocket or small handbag. Cascarets quickly captured the nation. Sterling had offices in Chicago, Minneapolis and New York, facilitating a national distribution of their product. They backed their roll-out with a $500,000 advertising push and incentives to retail druggists. By 1899, Cascarets were selling 5,000,000 boxes per year, and were poised to become the top-selling proprietary medicine in the U.S. (source)
Cascara is a powerful drug with unambiguous effects. As the science staff at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital explain, “Cascarosides increase intestinal motility and lead to propulsive contractions.” But around 1900, Americans didn’t just associate constipation with abdominal discomfort or gas or indigestion. Constipation for our great-grandparents was the root evil of just about every ailment and malaise you could think of. And for whatever was wrong with you, a laxative (or purgative or cathartic–the terms were used pretty interchangeably) would do the trick.
Cascarets Candy Cathartics were sold as the universal remedy:
When you have Heartburn, Colic, Coated Tongue, Suspected Breath, Acid-rising-in-throat, Gas-belching, or an incipient Cold, take a Cascaret. Remember, all these are not merely Discomforts, but indications of a serious Cause. …A coming Headache can be warded off in short order, by a single Cascaret, and the cause removed. Heartburn, Gas-belching, Acid-risings in the throat, and Colicky feeling are sure signs of bowel trouble from food poisons, and should be dealt with promptly. One Cascaret will stop the coming trouble, and move on the Bowel load, if taken at the first signs. ( 1905 ad)
Cascarets ads included every American as a potential customer: men and women, old and young. Even nursing infants would benefit it mama would take a Cascarets. But the real benefit in the new candy cathartic was the banishment of the old remedy: castor oil.
Doctors and mothers alike were desperate to find some way of avoiding the nightly struggle to force the nasty liquid down Junior’s screaming throat. Imagine the relief of American children when Cascarets took the place of the daily dose of castor oil. Here’s an ad for Cascarets from 1918 that pretty much tells the whole story:
We’ll let Jane and Michael Banks have the last word:
Never be cross or cruel, Never give us Castor oil, or gruel.
And with Cascarets, there would be Castor oil no more.