Photo Gallery: Poison in Common Products

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In the early 20th century dangerous and often poisonous chemicals were included in many common household products. Browse these pictures of medicines, liniments, moonshine and a cyanide furnace.

Corresponding educational resources for this photo gallery can be found on PBS LearningMedia||

A 1905 cover of Collier's magazine accuses patent medicine of poisoning Americans. "Babies who cry are fed laudanum under the name of syrup," the cover reads.

|Library of Congress;||

Philadelphia pharmacist John B. Ferguson produced and sold "Lead Water" to soothe infant eczema, poison ivy, hives or other itchy skin rashes.

|Vintage Med Stock;||

Mercury was used for medicinal purposes for centuries, and when compounded with chlorine, mercury chloride was sold as an antisyphilitic, as seen in this Squibb's pharmaceutical catalogue.

|Library of Congress;||

In 1927, Vigoradium advertised a water dispenser containing a small amount of radium in glass in the center, thus offering consumers "liquid sunshine" at their fingertips.


An advertisement for Radium Radia claims the product is "unquestionably the only reliable and sure cure for Rheumatism, and all other bodily pains." It is also "a sure cure for appendicitis."

|Library of Congress;||

Radium was considered such a health additive and miracle cure in the early 20th century that dozens of companies began branding their wares as "Radium". Radium brand cookware (pictured), "Radium Silk" neckties, and a "radium heater" were all advertised in popular magazines.

|Library of Congress;||

It is unlikely that Radium Spray actually contained any radium, but the combination bug killer/furniture polish was nonetheless advertised to "kill everything but a guilty conscience."

|University of Washington Libraries;||

In the early 20th century, chloroform was easily available for doctors to use as an anesthetic -- or for burglars to use to render their victims unconscious.

|Vintage Med Stock;||

Cyanogas, or calcium cyanide, is still used in some parts of the world as a rodenticide and insecticide, though its toxicity has made it unpopular in the U.S. In 1926, the American Cyanamid Sales Company advertised Cyanogas "to kill rats quickly, cheaply and surely."

|American Cyanamid Sales Company;||

This man dips a photographic plate into a cyanide furnace during the photo development process.

|Library of Congress;||

During the 1920s Prohibition era, hundreds of Americans learned to produce homemade alcohol, commonly called moonshine.

|Library of Congress;||

To help enforce Prohibition, the government made denatured alcohol even more vile and toxic by adding more methyl alcohol and sometimes even kerosene and benzene.

|Maine Historical Society

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Radium used to be an ingredient in face creams. Thallium was in depilatory lotions. Arsenic was in rat poison -- until relatively recently! What chemical ingredients are in your household products? Share your story with American Experience!