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eBay Tuesday: Tracy Company Gas Eliminant

New London pharmaceutical company sold tablets to soothe indigestion...and some rather unusual drugs as well

This column has delved into New London's pharmaceutical history before, but in each case the products don't exactly stand up to modern scrutiny. There was Bliss' Botanic Cough Syrup, which was probably more of an alcoholic tonic than anything, and then the Hop Pill Manufacturing Company, which seemed to promise a cure to anything with its advertisements. The Tracy Company looks to be more legit, but some of its manufactures are certainly enough to raise modern eyebrows.

This week's auction item is a patent medicine flier for the Tracy Company's gas eliminant. It is being put up for sale by the Ephemera Archive for American Studies in Brattleboro, Vt. The seller, Kit Barry, curates the archive and describes it as the largest private archive of ephemera in the country; he says he has over 70,000 items, of which some 70 percent are from before 1900.

The flier is part of the 30 percent, as Barry estimates that it dates back to around 1920. The pill contained sodium bicarbonate, pancreatin, and papain with a focus on curing stomach and intestinal ailments ranging from dysentery to dyspepsia to flatulence. The advertisement boasts that the effectiveness of the product is visible in the millions of orders physicians have sent in to the Tracy Company laboratories to fill prescriptions. They were sent out in 100-pill bottles, or by the thousand for $2.50 to physicians, and available from wholesale and retail druggists.

The company itself is a post-1900 entity, first incorporated under Rhode Island laws in 1909. The company's founders - Fred Ames, William G. Stebbins, and William L. Apley - had $150,000 in capital stock toward the manufacture and sale of chemicals. The New London production was set up at the corner of Bank Street and Montauk Ave.

Within five years, the company was doing well enough that it expanded its production capacity and had six traveling salesmen on the road. The Tracy Company was still around in 1937, although the "Things Told by the Tattler" column in The Day remarked that since it didn't depend on a local market few people were aware of its existence. "The Tracy Co., it might be remarked, is one of the largest customers of the New London post office, spending each year many thousands of dollars," the Tattler wrote. "It has a very up-to-date plant and the manufacture of its products is a very interesting process to witness."

Indeed, a federal case from the several years before highlighted some unusual products offered by the Tracy Company. This concerned the violation of food and drug acts in the 1923 sale of "codeine sulphate, morphine sulphate, heroin, nitroglycerin, atropine sulphate, and strychnine sulphate tablets" in Massachusetts. The cause of the case wasn't what you might expect: the Department of Agriculture wasn't concerned with the substances themselves, but rather the "adulteration and misbranding" of them.

It's a little surprising to see heroin, an addictive drug and controlled substance, and strychnine, now mostly used as a rat poison, included among the pharmaceutical drugs. But all were permitted at the time for medical uses, and the government was more concerned that the tablets offered by the Tracy Company did not have as many grains of the material as appeared on the label. For the offense of not putting enough addictive painkillers and rat poison in their product, the company entered a no contest plea and paid $150.

This is the original flier, in good condition save for a minor fold line and a tear near the top measuring about three-quarters of an inch. The starting bid is $16, and the auction is scheduled to end at 11:30 p.m. tonight.

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David Irons November 14, 2012 at 02:19 PM
This doesn't sound any more of a flim flam than some of the products being advertised today. Little changes. People are naive and there will always be someone out there to take advantage of that naivete.

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