Radithor, Radioactive Water.

The horrible history of health and beauty

Jonathan Smyth's Times Past column looks at the strange world of health and beauty in the old days with some killer beauty tips...

In today’s world health and beauty is a billion-euro industry. Everything from lip balm to face cream is rigorously tested. Whereas, one hundred years ago, testing was not so much a priority. In those days, trial by error ruled the day and, if something appeared to achieve the desired effect, then there was a tendency to think ‘ah sure it will do the job’ and somehow magically improve the user’s beauty and vitality.

Reader, be advised. If you are anyway squeamish in nature, then perhaps turn the page, because none of the following beauty tips we are about to look at should ever be recommended.

Pale beauties

For that sublime pale reflection, highly valued by the Victorian middle-class woman, there were products to eat like ‘Dr Rose’s arsenic complexion wafers’, or ‘Dr Campbell’s safe arsenic complexion wafers’ and, for washing ‘Fould’s medicated arsenic complexion soap’. All of them proported to be amazing wonder treatments, which whitened the body by slowly killing off just enough blood cells. Those who used these treatments developed deathly pale complexions, which convinced wealthy neighbours that they did not need to work in the great outdoors, which, in their opinion, was only for the poor who consequently got a suntan. Of course, nowadays, tans are all the rage even if acquiring one may be just as dangerous.

Arsenic springs

Did I say arsenic springs? Surely, I meant scenic springs, I hear you say. Well, in the book, ‘The Art of Beauty’, written by Victorian actress Lola Montez, she describes a refreshing leisure spot in Bohemia, now in the Czech Republic, where local beauties bathed in arsenic waters to give their skins a transparent whiteness and, according to Montez, it was necessary to keep up the practice throughout one’s life as ‘death would speedily follow’ if they stopped.

Arsenic was once used in everyday items from wallpapers to furnishings and many died from gas and dust given off by it in the home. Arsenic gave wallpaper a lovely shade of green, which became all the rage. Its side effects on health were less enhancing.

Another so-called wonder treatment among bygone beauty and wellbeing practitioners was a sweetly sounding ingredient known as Belladonna, used widely in eye drops to enhance a girl’s looks by giving her a much-coveted watery doe-eyed look that was all the rage in the late 19th century. However, it must be made clear that Belladonna is dangerous and is more commonly known as a highly ‘poisonous perennial herbaceous plant’ called ‘deadly nightshade’. A less poisonous but equally damaging alternative to Belladonna was citric juice or perfume, which also led to blindness.

Belladonna, combined with arsenic, was also used for alleviating cramps during the menstrual cycle, which it did, but if usage was prolonged, it could be lethal. You may be forgiven for thinking that people did not know better but, astoundingly, they were aware of the risks involved but it did not stop them using all sorts of things including arsenic and ammonia. Yes, I almost forgot to mention, they applied ammonia to their bodies too.

At night, a recommended coating of ‘opium’ could be applied to the face, and then in the morning, having had a good night’s rest the lady was advised to wash her face vigorously with ammonia to remove the opium, leaving her skin refreshed.

You have heard the expression as ‘mad as a hatter’, and there was nothing as mad as make-up in the 19th century. Women who wanted to thicken their eyelashes and eyebrows were advised to apply mercury as part of the bedtime regime and mercury used over prolonged periods as we all know, was a cause of madness and we can be certain that those who applied it as make-up faced a similar fate.

Radiant smiles

For the brightest of smiles, German people could choose a toothpaste with a little added vim called ‘Doramad, Radioactive Toothpaste’, produced by Auergesellscheft of Berlin from the 1920s to the close of the Second World War. The toothpaste contained a radioactive metal called thorium and the misguided thinking at the time was that thorium had ‘curative’ properties.

Radium was a hot product in 1900s’ America where female workers at the United States Radium Corporation painted luminous radioactive paint on watch and clock dials and to keep the bristles of their paintbrush nice and sharp, they pointed the tip using their lips. The good-humoured ladies had so much fun, that they even painted their nails and sometimes their teeth in the luminous paint. A decade later, many died from radioactive poisoning. For that glowing look there was even a radium-filled face cream called Thoradia.

‘Liquid sunshine’

Another extremely dangerous product, commonly referred to as liquid sunshine was the evil sounding concoction labelled ‘Radithor’ made using a blending of radium and mesothorium. This product made wild promises, including boosting the energy levels of those who ingested it. The American athlete and golfer Ebenezer Byers was the most famous user of Radithor, a highly radioactive water recommended to him by his doctor in 1927 after a fall during a golf match, which injured his arm and caused him great pain. The doctor convinced Byers that a small spoonful of it each day would bring about rapid healing, but the patient soon felt a surge in energy and began taking a bottle a day, then eventually consuming up to three bottles per day.

In 1931, Byres had a horrifying experience when his jaw completely fell off. In four years, he had consumed 1,400 bottles of radiated water causing body tissue to melt and leaving his insides to come apart. Surgeons rebuilt his jaw as best they could. A year later in 1932, Byers died from the radiation aged 51 years. Radithor was outlawed, but the company owner William Bailey made further attempts to revive the dangerous potion under a different name.

Is it any wonder that people of a certain generation often would tell us, ‘make sure you read the label.’


Displaying their true colours: The Cavan Militia