The red, black, and gold tin box pictured here (about 2 1/4” x 1 5/8” x 1” high) was the product of Chichester Chemical Company of Philadelphia: Diamond Brand Pills. Nowhere on the box, however, is any indication of what the pills were expected to remedy. Indeed, each box was secured with a blue ribbon as if to keep a secret. (Note: The present box has a flange on the bottom that fastened the ends of the ribbon, which are still present.)
According to the American Medical Association’s book Nostrums and Quackery, (1st ed., Chicago: AMA Press, 1911), while in its ads “nothing is said regarding the therapeutic uses of the preparation, the public to a large extent knows it and buys it as an abortifacient remedy” (p. 431)—that is, one intended to halt the normal continuation of a pregnancy.
Although the present box is empty, it once contained, in addition to the mystery pills, a little booklet. This explained “Amenorrhea” (absence of menstruation) and “Dysmenorrhea” (painful menstruation), although most of the pages were devoted to other matters (testimonials, directions, cautions against imitations, and so on). Since absence of menstruation could indicate pregnancy, it appears the product was thus suggested/interpreted as an abortifacient.
The product was originally called “Chichester’s English Pennyroyal Pills”—pennyroyal being an old herbal remedy for seasickness, headaches, and coughs and colds. (See Scott Cunningham, Cunningham’s Encyclopedia of Magical Herbs, St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 2000, 198; Renny Harrop, ed., Encyclopedia of Herbs, Secaucus, NJ: Chartwell, 1977, 14–15.) Its oil was poisonous, and pennyroyal was sometimes reputed—along with tansy and certain other herbs—to be an abortifacient. . However, the National Library of Medicine cautions that pennyroyal may induce abortion but “can kill the mother or cause her irreversible kidney and liver damage” (https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/natural/480.html).
According to the Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health (http:www.mum.org/chiches.htm), some deaths had been attributed to the pills in question. It appears the company at some point ceased to include pennyroyal as an ingredient.
It was probably at this time that the company also dropped the word pennyroyal from its products and ads. The tin at hand states on one end: “NEW STYLE ADOPTED January 1st 1907.” The date is revealing: it is when the Food and Drug Act (passed by Congress in 1906) actually went into effect. The company had obviously seen the writing on the wall and, indeed, when the Diamond Brand Pills were subsequently analyzed they were found to contain no pennyroyal; its chief medicinal ingredients were aloes and iron sulfate, of dubious purpose (Nostrums 1911, 432–433).
Diamond Brand Pills hark back to a time when abortion was illegal, and when doubtful or outright dangerous medicines and back-alley abortions were, sadly, the only recourses for women wishing to end unwanted pregnancies. /p