There's a (in)famous vintage ad for "Cocaine Toothache Drops" produced by the Lloyd Manufacturing Co. of Albany, dated to the mid 1880s.
It's one of those people-in-the-past-were-so-crazy kind of items, the sort of thing that prompts smiles and laughs now. So much so, that this particular vintage age is seemingly everywhere online. And someone sends it to us here at AOA at least once every year.
The ad popped up in our inbox again recently, so we figured we try to find out the backstory.
Or, to put it another way: How did a pharmacist in Albany end up selling cocaine intended for teething children?
The Lloyd Manufacturing Co.
The Lloyd Manufacturing Co. appears to have been an extension of a pharmacy run by Charles E. Lloyd. And our best guess is that the cocaine toothache drops were a joint venture with a partner named S. Dexter Pilsbury. They're listed as co-applicants in the US Patent Office's registry of labels for a "Cocaine Tooth Ache Drops" product in March 1885. (The duo also registered a label for something called "Indian Corn Cure" earlier that year.)
Lloyd was a native of Albany. And in 1875 he was listed as a "clerk" in a shop located at 70 State Street. That was the location of the druggist D.H. Fonda. So Lloyd was probably working as an assistant of some sort, learning the pharmacy business. By 1877, he's ventured out on his own, set up as druggist at what was then 219 Hudson Ave, according to the city directory.
The Lloyd Manufacturing Co. also made products such as "
So where does S. Dexter Pilsbury fit in? That's a good question. Pilsbury was the son of Amos Pilsbury, who, somewhat famously at the time, had been the superintendent of the Albany Penitentiary. Dexter followed in the family business -- he's listed as an officer at the penitentiary in the 1860, and the 1880 US Census has him listed as a prison official. But we get the feeling Dexter had been eclipsed by his brother, Louis, who succeeded their father as head of the prison.
We don't know how Dexter Pilsbury and Charles Lloyd went into business together. But during the late 19th century it looks like they lived in close proximity to each other. And the two men were about the same age -- Pilsbury was at most two years older. In the 1870s Lloyd had been living with his mother at a residence on Hamilton Street that was probably about a block from what appears to have been a Pilsbury family home. And in 1885 Dexter Pilsbury lived just up Hudson Ave from Lloyd's shop. Maybe they were friends. Maybe Pilsbury had been a customer. Maybe Pilsbury -- with $10,000 inherited from his father -- was an investor. Maybe "Smallbany" has always been in effect.
Charles E. Lloyd died on December 31, 1893 at the age of 44. His death is marked with just a small notice in the Albany Evening Journal. He's buried in the Albany Rural Cemetery. His wife, Mary E. Lloyd, would live until 1934 and the age of 82. They're buried in the same plot.
Sherman Dexter Pilsbury would make it 1904 when he died at age 57. He had divorced with his first wife in 1874. He lived with, and had a daughter with, another woman for more than two decades after his divorce. And he ended up marrying another woman the day before he died. The resulting situation regarding his estate sounded messy. Like Charles Lloyd, Dexter Pilsbury is buried in the Albany Rural Cemetery (in the same plot as many other family members).
OK, but cocaine toothache drops?
Right, the cocaine. In the later parts of the 19th century, cocaine was a substance of great interest to the medical profession. It had been purified and isolated by German scientists during the 1850s and 1860s, and by the 1870s doctors were experimenting with it as an analgesic substance.
It was a topic on the frontier of the field, both figurative and literal. The Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the New York State Pharmaceutical Association from 1888 -- which includes a listing of Charles E. Lloyd as a delegate to its counterpart association in Massachusetts -- published a long account of a pharmacist's voyage through South America investigating crops such as coca and other indigenous remedies.
Why such interest? Well, for one cocaine held the promise as a local anesthetic. The medical profession was just starting to get a handle of anesthesia in general, and the possibility of a highly effective way to deliver painkilling directly to one spot in the body -- as as opposed to general anesthesia -- was a big deal.
From an article titled "The new anaesthetic" the Brooklyn Union in May, 1885 -- about the same time as Charles Lloyd and Dexter Pilsbury are registering the name of their toothache drops:
For dental operations it looks as if the hydrocholorate of cocaine owuld be extensively used. Dr. Turnbull cites quite a number of cases were teeth have been drawn, or nerves removed, with little or no pain to the patient. The method of application is described as very simple. After drying the gum, a small camel's hair brush was dipped in a solution (of 2 per cent) and the gum on either side of the tooth brushed across a few times. This was repeated twice at intervals of about three minutes, making three applications in all. A few minutes afterward the gum lancet was used, with almost no paint at all. The tooth was then extracted with a little less pain than it would have been without the anaesthetic. In one case cited by Dr. Turnbull, a small twist of cotton, saturated with two drops of a five per cent solution of the oleate of cocaine was wound around a very sensitive tooth, the cotton being in contact with the gum, and the tooth drawn without any pain.
So far the attention of those who have used cocaine has been directed mainly to slight surgical operations, but it looks as if when the method of application of this new anaesthetic gets better understood that its employment will become more general.
So the idea that you'd give teething kids -- or anyone with a toothache -- some cocaine drops probably wouldn't have been weird to a lot of people at the time. It might even have been considered very modern.
Cocaine also became more prominent in popular culture. Coca-Cola was named in 1885 -- the original formulation included as some (tiny) bit of cocaine. The character Sherlock Holmes, the first book for whom appeared in 1887, used cocaine. And about this same time Sigmund Freud was touting the drug.
Of course, that medical promise was tempered by peril, which some of the doctors working with cocaine ended up experiencing firsthand. William Stewart Halsted -- one of the founder professors of Johns Hopkins Hospital, and prominent figure in the early days of what we now consider modern surgical aspects such as anesthesia -- himself became addicted to both cocaine and morphine.
The medical profession, along with a lot of other people, quickly caught on to the dangers. By the early 1900s there are numerous articles and discussions about the need to states to better regulate and restrict access to the drug. And, unfortunately, the seeds were sown of problems that still persist today -- including a federal law that tilted against treating addiction as a medical issue, and some really terrible and pernicious racial stereotyping.
The legacy of cocaine's use as an anesthetic lives on today. Novocaine was developed to deliver the beneficial qualities of cocaine without the negative. And the "-caine" name continues in drugs still used today, such as Lidocaine.
The (in)famous ad
Even though the "Cocaine Toothache Drops" ads is so widely spread, we haven't been able to track down from where exactly it originates. Maybe it wasn't so much an ad as it was a sign or label for a tin. We'd like to know.
We'd also like to know what Charles E. Lloyd would think about his toothache drops being famous -- on something called "The Internet" -- more than a century later.
Thanks to Albany city historian Tony Opalka for research help.
Earlier on AOA: Why is there a mayor on my oatmeal?
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