Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup

  A medicine bottle wrapped in tan, printed paper next to a colorful card featuring a woman and her two children looking at a newspaper advertisement.
4.5” H x 1” D (Bottle)
Accession Number:
2019.21.1 (Card); 2021.1.160 (Bottle)

Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was a patent medicine first introduced in the 19th century and marketed to calm small children, clean teeth, freshen breath, and relieve constipation. Its colorful advertising, including trading cards and calendars, showed happy, peaceful babies cradled by beautiful new mothers.

Unknown to parents, each bottle contained a dangerous amount of morphine and alcohol. Patent medicines were treatments that could be purchased without a prescription. They were commercially protected by trademarks and rarely ever patented. Consumers did not know the contents of patent medicines, including the ones they gave their children.

Some infants who consumed Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup went to sleep and never woke up. While morphine is addictive for people of all ages, it can be fatal to children, even in small doses. Morphine is an addictive pain reliever made from opium. A German scientist named Friedrich Sertürner first discovered morphine by isolating it from raw opium sap in 1805. More than a decade later, Merck became the first pharmaceutical company to commercially produce the drug. Other companies and private entrepreneurs incorporated morphine into their patent medicines until it was widely used in the United States by 1870.

Public outcry over poisonings and contaminated food and medicines led Congress to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. The Act required the listing of certain ingredients on product labels, including opiates, cocaine, and cannabis. Shortly after, the American Medical Association denounced Mrs. Winslow’s Syrup because of its dangerous combination of ingredients and link to infant deaths. It remained on consumers’ shelves until the 1930s.

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