LeRoy, New York, has many claims to fame—apart from the mysterious twitching outbreak I investigated for Skeptical Inquirer in 2012. It was the birthplace of Jell-O in 1897 (the museum is well worth seeing) as well as something called Mother Gray’s Sweet Powders for Children, among other products.
On a visit in 2016 I purchased from an antique store a rare item: an empty envelope of Mother Gray’s (see photo). And therein lies a story.
Allen S. Olmstead was born in LeRoy in 1856 and graduated from Cornell University in 1879. He and a friend (Orator Woodward, a patent medicine man and later owner of Jell-O) marketed a plaster of Paris ball that was the forerunner of the clay pigeon, a target used for trap shooting.
Olmstead also formed a proprietary medicine company. He began to market Mother Gray’s Sweet Powder, a remedy supposedly developed by a nurse in the Children’s Home, New York City. It was originally intended to treat pinworms, but also became recommended for headache, fever, and constipation. Indeed, for 25¢ the purchaser was promised that the powders would “act on the liver, cleanse the stomach, move the bowels, positively remove worms and are harmless as milk” (Belluscio 2010).
In fact, the powder’s main ingredient, calomel (mercurous chloride), was not safe as milk but instead could be toxic if used regularly, causing mercury poisoning. Among other ingredients listed in a circular (which came in a box with the envelopes) were licorice, slippery elm, anise, sulfur, bicarbonate of soda, and sugar (hence the word sweet in the name). It also contained mandrake (probably the American Mayapple root, a cathartic) which was also poisonous (in large doses used for suicide) Lust 2005, 264.
Olmstead also developed Allen’s Foot-Ease, a cooling, soothing foot powder that was also recommended as an after shave and “a general healing powder” for chafing, etc.—according to directions on the box (Allen’s 2016). His many other products include Allen’s Discovery for Piles. He sold Pope’s Blood and Liver medicine and Knock a Cold pills, and manufactured a line of Allen’s Oregon Herbs. He had an initial, ready market, his first factory being located on the floor above a main street drug store in LeRoy (Belluscio 2010).
There , Mother Gray’s Sweet Powders were compounded and sent out to well-meaning mothers who—we must hope—gave it to their children in small, infrequent doses.
Allen’s Foot-Ease. 2016. Online at https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_719200; accessed November 17, 2016.
Belluscio, Lynne. 2010. Mother Gray’s Sweet Powders. LeRoy Pennysaver, June 27.
Lust, John. 2005. The Herb Book. New York: Beneficial Books.