Common Cold

Common Cold

They say the one constant is change, but something that hasn’t changed in a long while is our annual preoccupation with the common cold. New Haven’s Daily Morning Journal and Courier reported on December 5, 1907, that “enough snow fell yesterday for the trolley company to get its sweepers out,” followed by the prediction, “To-day it may well be expected that the handkerchief counters will find their full quota of bargain hunters for there will be plenty of head colds…”

Treating those head colds was a booming business. Over the decade or so preceding that small news item, Ely’s Pineola Balsam, a resinous ointment, frequently ran ads claiming to be “a sure Remedy for coughs, colds, sore throat and for asthma.” Hale’s Honey of Horehound and Tar warned that “the ghastly terror of consumption stares a man in the face who neglects a cold.” Hale’s, of course, “acts like magic” to avoid that awful result. Likewise, Ozomulsion (“a purely scientific compound of Ozone Cod Liver Oil and Guaiacol”) warned, “Hundreds of People are too apt to treat with indifference a common cough. ‘It’s a little cold,’ they say, ‘and will soon wear off.’ Fatal mistake! Too often it is the first approach of the destroyer.”

The Courier, whose name changed with time, frequently ran a prominent advertorial on the front page of its second section extolling the virtues of Pe-Ru-Na, filled with testimonials from satisfied patients who had recovered from what was then called “catarrh,” defined by Oxford Dictionaries as “excessive discharge or build-up of mucus in the nose or throat, associated with inflammation of the mucous membrane.” Catarrh was a commonly noted ailment, often making front page news when political leaders and celebrities were said to be suffering from a case. The front page of the Journal and Courier of December 17, 1906, for example, reported that King Oscar of Sweden had “passed a quiet day,” with a four-hour nap and a temperature of 99.8. “The catarrh of the trachea is diminished,” read the news flash.

Hay fever was sometimes referred to as “summer catarrh,” whereas “ost winter ills: coughs, colds and la grippe are types of catarrh,” a 1902 Pe-Ru-Na advertorial helpfully explained. Other advertisers identified the elusively defined catarrh as a secondary ill, the result of a cold gone worse—“Caused by Run Down Constitutions and Continued Colds,” as one 1908 item put it. The ad goes on to extol the virtues of “the delicious cod liver and iron preparation, Vinol,” available at Hull’s Corner Drug Stores at the corners of State and Chapel Streets and Howard and Congress Avenues.

In its “Matters of Interest to Women” column, the Morning Journal-Courier of July 18, 1908, advocated a do-it-yourself approach to cold remedies: “For a common cold, take one pint of hot water, ten drops of spirits of camphor, mix well and drink as hot as possible. Then take a number of deep breaths, holding long. You will be surprised to find how quickly this will cure your cold.”

Heeding such homey advice may have paid off in other ways. Rumors persisted that some pharmaceutical remedies contained more insidious ingredients than cod liver oil and honey. An 1897 Daily Morning Journal and Courier article attempted to debunk claims “that the cocaine habit prevails alarmingly in South Manchester, in this state, due to the introduction there of a catarrh snuff containing that substance.” The epidemic of so-called “cocaine fiends” was a fiction, several local doctors attested, though one confirmed that he had “met only three and they have left town and are cured.” The article concluded with the assertion that South Manchester residents were “indignant” about the reports, which had gone viral, 19th-century style, and wanted others to know that their town was “an especially orderly and well-behaved community.”

But the cocaine story wasn’t over. A chemical analysis of some of the most common brands of “catarrh powders” eight years later found cocaine to make up between 0.98 percent and 3.76 percent of the ingredients. The apparent result was dependency for some, and a law was passed requiring prescriptions for the medicine. It seems to have gone unheeded by some New Haven druggists, leading a group of New Haven women to begin a “crusade” in 1905 to insist that the law be followed. The Hartford Courant reported that the powders were allegedly being sold “indiscriminately by the druggists, on the ground that they do not know the ingredients of the powder.”

It’s hard to ignore the familiarity of these century-old news accounts as we struggle with our own pharmaceutical concerns and addiction crises. And as quaint as these old ads at first appear, there’s no denying we’ve had just as hard a time settling on a fix. We may not call it “catarrh” anymore, but, despite successive generations of pills, ointments, elixirs and folk remedies, there’s still no cure for the common cold.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims. Image 1 features vintage pharmaceutical bottles in Robert Greenberg’s Lost in New Haven collection. Image 2 features contemporary shelves of cold remedies. This story was originally published on January 24, 2019.

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