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They used to go to work and steep out spruce boughs, clean boughs, and wash them and steep them out and then drain off the water, the liquor, and put it in bottles and take a drink. It would give you a good appetite, and the dogwood rind would clean your blood.
-Mrs. Hayes b. 1921
Before the 1950s, visits to the doctor's office were far fewer than nowadays. Elder Canadians often remember mother or grandmother dosing them with tonics, especially in the springtime. "You wouldn't get sick so quick, they believed." At one time, tonics were among the commonest of medicines for all manner of conditions that included "run-down feelings," loss of appetite, loss of weight, fevers, coughs and colds, and more. Medicines were prepared, commonly in the form of teas, from a variety of plants: dandelion, dogwood, juniper, spruce, sassafras, and wild cherry. You may know of many others.
By the early 1900s, countless medicines purchased from the general or drug store were becoming more popular than home-made tonics. Although many were manufactured in Canada (by foreign companies or small enterprises, such as pharmacies, for local distribution), innumerable others were imported from the United States and Great Britain.
"General purpose" over-the-counter tonics included Wilson's Herbine Bitters, Ayer's Sarsaparilla and Macs Extract of Sarsaparilla. There was also a huge market for "special" tonics, especially for female complaints. The most famous was Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, though it met fierce competition from Dr. Pierce's Golden Discovery.
During the first half of the twentieth century, doctors were replacing herbal medicines with increasing numbers of new medicines manufactured by the expanding pharmaceutical industry. Immediately popular were insulin, vitamins, sulpha drugs, and, in the 1940s, penicillin.
Even many active constituents of plants, which had become popular in the nineteenth century, were slowly losing favour. One tonic commonly prescribed by doctors contained iron, as well as quinine from cinchona bark, and strychnine from nux vomica seeds. However, this iron/quinine/strychnine preparation, Easton's syrup, was giving way to medicines containing iron alone. One key reason for the disappearance of "old" tonics from the 1930s onward was the tremendous popularity of "new" tonics: the vitamins.
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