The 1920s were a serious decade. Despite the goofy fads and slang, such as this week’s voguecabulary word, there were a lot of absolutely bananas things happening during this time period. Obviously flappers, jazz, and Prohibition were huge changes happening to the cultural landscape of the US and Europe, but the Roaring 20s have always felt a bit to me like the first somewhat modern decade. People were finally accepting germ theory, and electricity was becoming more widely available. Despite a lot of this modernization, however, there were still many, many things reminiscent of an earlier time.
While we made great advancements in science and technology before, during, and after the 1920s, we still weren’t totally sure how to make products that wouldn’t be dangerous or deadly to people. Patent medicine was slowly dwindling, thanks to the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906. Drugs like heroin, opium, cocaine, and (unfortunately) cannabis had been deemed as dangerous or addictive in the US and the UK and were more stringently controlled than in years past.
However, despite this increase in regulations, there were still plenty of things 100 years ago that were much, much more dangerous than they are today. Of course, this includes activities like coal mining or having a baby, but even seemingly mundane things like putting on lipstick or taking a drink could be dangerous. Here are some examples of everyday things that could have been lethal in the 1920s.
Cosmetics have a long history of including toxic chemicals, and the 1920s were no exception. In previous decades, women had applied and consumed arsenic in a variety of forms in order to keep them perpetually young. Of course, no one seemed to realize that the reason for this everlasting beauty probably had less to do with the fact that women were using high quality cosmetics and more to do with the fact that many of them were dropping dead from arsenic poisoning before the age of 30. By the 1920s, arsenic had mainly fallen out of fashion. People realized that it was probably bad for you, and that was bad for business. So what did they turn to instead, you may ask? Well, my sublime muskrats, the answer is radium.
Since radium was discovered in 1898, people had been looking for new and innovative ways to capitalize on this seemingly magical compound. I mean, it glowed in the dark, so who can really blame them? Radium cosmetics were ludicrously popular in the 1920s and 1930s. During this time, radium could be found in face creams and powders, blush, and lipstick. It was apparently such a lucrative business that many companies started claiming their products had radium in them when, in fact, they did not. However, it appears that many radium cosmetics were actually radioactive. But hey, at least it made your skin glow.
There was a market for radioactive makeup in the US, but it was nowhere near as lucrative as in France or England. In case you were thinking that this might be the only time in history that Americans were actively concerned about making healthy decisions, fear not. The biggest reason for Yankee skepticism was that radium seemed like it would make the products too expensive.
Of course radium wasn’t the only dangerous ingredient found in cosmetics from the 1920s. Compacts with powder foundation or talcum powder had been around for years, but they became immensely popular during this decade. There is some debate nowadays about whether or not talcum powder, in general, is safe to use. However, in the 1920s, no one thought twice about the advisability of smelling like a baby’s butt or about the safety of another infamous chemical that occurred naturally in most talcum powder during that time period — asbestos. Mercury, cyanide, and thallium acetate (rat poisoning) were all found regularly in cosmetics until the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act was passed in 1938. Asbestos exposure would finally be recognized as a major health issue some 50 years later.
Your Haircare Routine
If there is one thing you should take away from this article and perhaps the whole of history, it’s that beauty is pain. It is both the pain of obsessively plucking your eyebrows as a teenager only to have the ‘natural look’ come into vogue a mere decade later and of slowly giving yourself cancer by rubbing highly toxic chemicals into your skin or hair. The 1920s saw several major innovations in hair care. The bob haircut became popular, and the first liquid shampoo was invented. Based on the limited amount of information out there, I would like to wildly speculate that this shampoo was probably like washing your hair with violet scented liquid hand soap. It’s very difficult to find out exactly what ingredients were found in shampoo from this time period, but we know that there was radium shampoo (because of course there was).
Handheld hair dryers first hit the market in the 1920s. In addition to being cumbersome, they were also dangerous. Shoddy wiring meant that there was a significant danger of starting a fire. Plus, a lot of people still didn’t completely understand electricity. This meant there were people getting shocked, and quite probably electrocuted.
Perhaps you, a woman in the 1920s, had unsightly facial or body hair that indicated you were not a perfectly smooth cherub. If that were the case, there were a number of products and methods available. One of these was, of course, our good friend radiation. You could quickly remove unsightly hair by simply burning it off with x-rays. This procedure often took a few applications, but it guaranteed that your unseemly feminine mustache would be no more. It also guaranteed that you’d probably end up with severe burns and skin lacerations.
At some point, medical professionals started to realize that perhaps dosing oneself with electromagnetic radiation was not conducive to people’s overall wellbeing. The good news is that an ingenious physician named Dr. Albert Geyser invented a device to make this process less harmful. The bad news is that his device, called The Cornell tube, was essentially a large leaded glass tube that merely focused the x-ray onto one specific part of the patient. The practice of using x-rays for hair removal was ended in the 1930s, mainly because of the aforementioned blistering and burning. Then, in the 1940s and 1950s, people who had used this treatment started to show signs of disfiguring and painful skin cancers. Hindsight is 2020.
Perhaps you have wisely decided that an x-ray treatment is too extreme a procedure to undergo for some face fuzz. Never fear, dear reader, you could always apply Koremlu or another hair removal cream. Yes, it contains thallium acetate and yes, it can cause paralysis, but that’s such a small price to pay to look a lot less like sasquatch, now isn’t it? On the other hand, if you find that your hair is limp or thinning, you can try some amazing hair tonics. What do you mean kerosene and camphor don’t promote hair growth?
Your Medicine Cabinet
This is probably the area most people would expect to find the most dangerous substances. But you need to remember, this is the 1920s! It’s a modern time. Gone are the days when we used to put cocaine in soda or drink laudanum by the gallon. Instead, we just give it to fussy babies. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was first marketed in 1849. By all accounts, it did, in fact, soothe many teething infants. Of course, that might have been due to the 65mg of morphine per fluid ounce. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was available (at least in the UK) until 1930.
If you had a sore throat, you could always turn to Kimball White Pine and Tar Cough Syrup. It contains no cocaine or opiates, just an awful lot of chloroform. It was marketed as a way to combat symptoms of the common cold and other respiratory issues beginning in 1847. Of course, sometimes people would take too much and experience cardiac and/or respiratory arrest. I find this utterly unsurprising given that the directions (and I use that term loosely) on one of this tonic’s many incarnations read, “Adults, one teaspoonful: children in proportion to age, to be taken every 3 or 4 hours or when cough is troublesome.” In 1976, chloroform was finally banned for human consumption. It’s unclear if this is because of all of the accidental deaths or the fact that it was found to cause cancer in lab rats.
Perhaps your complaints are of a more private, delicate nature. If you’re suffering from “feminine complaints” such as menopause, period cramps, or irregular menstruation, perhaps you should reach for Ergoapiol. Ergoapiol is made of two very dangerous chemicals: ergot and apiol. When it came onto the market in the early 1900s, it was also marketed for ‘amenorrhea’, which is the absence of a menstrual period. During the 1920s (and even later), this was often code for an unplanned pregnancy.
If you’ve heard about ergot, it’s probably in the context of hallucinogenic substances. Ergot is a type of fungus that grows on grains like rye and is known to cause delusions and a distorted sense of reality. Some people believe that it was the cause of the Salem witch trials. During the Middle Ages, it was commonly used to induce labor and to help stop blood flow after childbirth. However, it can be incredibly toxic and can cause gangrene and seizures. Apiol occurs naturally in parsley and has actually been used since at least the ancient Greeks to induce abortions. It does also legitimately seem to relieve period cramps and other issues. Unfortunately, in large doses, apiol can cause liver and kidney damage. It’s difficult to find a lot of information about the drug or for how long it was available, but there are at least two deaths from the 1930s that can be attributed to it. Ergoapiol was being marketed through 1944 in the US. There is also a 1968 article in The Journal of Sex Research by Martin Cole and A. F. M. Brierley that mentions ergoapiol being used then in England.
Keeping Your Home Clean
By the 1920s, vacuum cleaners had been around for several decades. However, there were a few major improvements made to them. While this was, in theory, supposed to make women’s lives easier, it often meant the opposite. Like hair dryers from this time period, vacuum cleaners also had many issues with wiring. Their increased popularity also meant that women who were responsible for keeping their home clean came under more intense scrutiny. Because being able to vacuum (instead of beat) your rugs apparently gave you oodles of free time. One of the things that was expected of women during this newfound free time was that they would polish their furniture more. That’s not a euphemism. Modern furniture polish is, of course, about as toxic as your average Instagram influencer, so I can only imagine how terrible it was 100 years ago. Plus we know they put radium in at least some of it.
One advertisement for a product sporting the highly original name of ‘Radium Spray’ was marketed as a “Combination Bug Killer, Disinfectant, and Furniture Polish”. I’m not sure how effective it was at any of those things, although I suppose that irradiating bugs and germs is certainly one way to kill them. Another way included exposing them to calcium cyanide pesticides. Also known as cyanogas, calcium cyanide was used in pesticides for many years. In 1926, the American Cyanamid Sales Company advertised Cyanogas “to kill rats quickly, cheaply and surely.” It is still used in some parts of the world, although the US apparently considers it a bit too dangerous (which is really saying something). Mercury derivatives were also commonly found in pesticides during this time period.
Of course, we have toxic and dangerous products in our homes today. The big difference is that they are (usually) difficult for the average child to ingest. This was not the case in the 1920s. The first child-resistant packaging wasn’t invented until 1967. Perhaps more dangerous was the lack of any sort of clear labeling. A 2013 article in the American Journal of Public Health written by Marian Moser Jones and Isidore Daniel Benrubi mentions that a lot of cleaning products or other highly toxic chemicals commonly came in nondescript containers that could easily be confused with mundane products like baking powder. The Caustic Poisons bill was introduced in 1926 and supported by both medical professionals and chemical manufacturers. This bill required that any substance containing things like ammonia, silver nitrate, and potassium hydroxide be sold with a large and visible warning label marked “poison” or marked with a skull and crossbones. This article also talks about a child who swallowed Kleen-All (which is still around and marketed now as an all-purpose, industrial strength cleaner). Said child was apparently allowed to play with this product because the mother didn’t know it was dangerous. There was no poison label, only an assertion that it would not “injure the finest fabric or the most delicate skin.” The bill came into effect in 1927.
Getting a Drink
You might assume that the 1920s were all about gangsters and speakeasies. Of course, there was a lot of that. But, drinking in the 1920s was often just as dangerous for the average person. People who weren’t able to get alcohol legally often resorted to buying moonshine. Enterprising individuals could make their own. In fact, several companies sold grape bricks. Despite sounding like some sort of knockoff PEZ candy, a grape brick was actually a dehydrated block of grape juice and pulp that was sold (legally) so that people could make their own wine. Instructions were clear that you should absolutely not leave it out in a warm place for 21 days, or else it might ferment.
Because moonshine was obviously not regulated, this meant that many moonshiners put methanol (otherwise known as wood alcohol) in their products. The advantage of methanol is that it is both cheaper and stronger than normal alcohol. The disadvantage is that can cause respiratory failure, blindness, and even death. In fact, some people speculate that the phrase ‘blind drunk’ came from moonshine with methanol in it.
There is a popular urban legend/conspiracy theory that the US government deliberately poisoned people who were illegally consuming moonshine. This appears to be partially true, if somewhat exaggerated. In 1927, the US government came up with a new way to essentially ensure that denatured alcohol would remain highly toxic, even if someone attempted to repurify it. Teetotalers knew that it was going to kill people, but they seemed largely indifferent. Some were even gleeful, such as historic asshole Seymour M. Lowman, who asserted that those he considered immoral were, “dying off fast from poison ‘hooch’” and that if it made America a sober country, “a good job will have been done.” In 1928, 33 people in Manhattan died in 3 days from complications of drinking wood alcohol. The government essentially shrugged their collective shoulders and said, “well, then don’t drink poison, my dudes.”
Of course, even if you were a teetotaler, you weren’t necessarily safe from the perils of benign beverages in the 1920s. That’s because one of the most fashionable beverages during this time was (of course) radium water. One popular product, Radithor, was touted as, “A Cure for the Living Dead” and “Perpetual Sunshine”. It was supposed to be used to treat most aches and pains, arthritis, and other ailments. Radithor’s most vocal fanboy back in the day was Ebeneezer ‘Eben’ Byers, a golfer and socialite. He apparently drank at least one bottle of Radithor every day for three years on his doctor’s suggestion. Byers stopped drinking Radithor in 1930 once his teeth started falling out. His death on March 31, 1932 was attributed to “radiation poisoning” and was one of the first indications to the general public that maybe it wasn’t a great idea to drink radioactive chemicals. The headline of a Wall Street Journal story about his death reads, “The radium water worked fine until his jaw came off.” Classy WSJ, real classy.
Because you didn’t expect me to just know all of this stuff on my own, did you?
I found a lot of information from Marian Moser Jones and Isidore Daniel Benrubi’s 2013 article “Poison Politics: A Contentious History of Consumer Protection Against Dangerous Household Chemicals in the United States, which was published in the American Journal of Public Health. It can be accessed here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3698836/
I also learned more about ergoapiol from a 1968 article by Martin Cole and A. F. M. Brierley. It was featured in The Journal of Sex Research and can be found here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3811920?seq=1