Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Under the Radar

OK, I admit it, I'm fascinated by the 1897 Sears, Roebuck & Co. Catalogue. I keep paging through it, finding more odd things. Right now I'm fixated on the Drug Department. You could order just about any kind of medication, including laudunum and paregoric, by mail, no questions asked. Hypodermic syringes, too. Of course, these things were perfectly legal at the time. Other things weren't. I ran across one particular item that really rocked my head back. Let me quote you the entry:
If you know much about herbalism you'll recognize this as a powerful abortifacient formula; note the postscript that says, "With useful information and instructions to ladies concerning their troubles." Troubles, indeed. Bear in mind, abortion in any form, for any reason, was illegal at this time; but here we have the Sears catalogue selling an abortifacient formula right there on the second page of their Drug Department section, in between Kidney & Liver Cure and Little Liver Pills.

Here's the thing: Herbal knowledge was much more widespread in 1897 than it is now. It was taught in medical schools, handed down from one generation to the next and considered part of a normal person's basic life instruction, sort of the way we now teach our kids to take aspirin for a headache. Most people reading this catalogue would know that "Female Pills" and "Pennyroyal Pills: The Standard Female Remedy" did not describe a benign formula to help with mood swings or some such.

I also found a copy of the Aurora Daily Express from March 1, 1901 with an ad for the aforementioned pills. Here they're described as 'a reliable and safe monthly regulator.' Indeed. I bet, if a woman took those pills once a month at a particular time in her cycle, she'd never have any...problems. Ahem. So what gives?

I'm thinking, women probably used these pills as birth control out of desperation. Technically they're not a contraceptive, since pregnancy would occur and then be terminated. I've seen modern instructions for using cotton root as birth control in much the same way these pills would have been used. It would awfully hard on a woman's body, but not as hard as repeated unwanted pregnancies, I suppose. Upwards of ten children wasn't at all unusual in 1897. Poor women; no wonder they died young. In an era when most information about birth control (condoms, pessaries, the rhythm method) was ruthlessly suppressed, this might have been the only available choice for many women. Wow.