Products from the Past

We have gathered a number of details for some products from the past, some will be viewed from today's perspective in horror, but most of us readily accept new products, not really knowing what the long term issues might be.


Asbestos was used for oven gloves, wall boards, artex, floor tiles and for lagging pipes. It could be found in brake pads, brake linings and clutch facings. It was in gas mask filters, the children's gas mask illustrated was designed to look like Mickey Mouse. Fake snow was another use, in 1939 MGM film The Wizard of Oz, the cast played in the (asbestos) snow, it was also used in Holiday Inn (1942).
There is a popular acceptance that the risks of asbestos were not known until the 1970's, Asbestos has been used for centuries due to its flame retardant and heat resisting/insulating properties and the risks were known from at least the first century and were mostly ignored.
Archaeological digs have found asbestos use in pottery and chinking of log dwellings going back over 4000 years. Asbestos use was very prevalent in ancient Greece where it was considered a valuable commodity. There are records of it being used to make tablecloths; these could be thrown into a fire to clean them. In fact, the probable origin of the word chrysotile (the most common form of asbestos) is from the Greek for gold (chrysos) and fibre (tilos). The Greeks and the Romans were aware that the slaves that worked in the asbestos mines had major health issues with their lungs.
Pliny the Elder, born circa 23 AD, a distinguished Roman author, naturalist and military commander (died Aug 25 79 AD during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius) was recorded as having warned others not to buy slaves from the asbestos mines as they died young. He also suggested that slave owners with mining interests should help to prolong the working life of their assets by providing masks made of bladder skin to keep the dust out of the slaves’ lungs


Laudanum (powdered opium, water, and alcohol) was once a common opiate preparation and rubbed onto the cheeks or gums, as well as applied to the teeth, it was used to treat whooping-cough, asthma, rheumatism, epilepsy, insomnia, anxiety and diarrhoea
Mrs Winslow's soothing syrup contained morphine but was readily available to the general public throughout the UK.
Infants Preservative (Laudanum) was regularly used to 'calm' babies and small children.
In 1886, an inquest on the body of a six-week-old baby decided that a mere six drops of Royal Infants’ Preservative had been enough to kill it, as it was already weakened by illness. Surgeon Mr H S Leigh told the jury that when he saw the baby the morning after the dose. “Its pupils were contracted to the size of a pin’s head; it was covered with a cold, clammy sweat; it was breathing about six in the minute, and was apparently moribund. The child lingered on till evening, when it died"
In East Anglia, opium in pills and penny sticks, was widely sold and opium-taking was described as a way of life there. Throughout the Fens it was used in 'poppy tea'.

Arsenic, Mercury and Lead

Products containing Arsenic, Mercury and Lead still have their uses, but are now much more controlled. Arsenic could be purchased over the counter and was used to medicate many skin problems. The illustration shows it described as 'Perfectly Harmless'. However it was portrayed historically as a 'poison of choice' due to its availability and ease of administration.
Arsenic, lead and mercury was historically use in paints, children ran the risk of poisoning from paint on toys and on their cots. Some risk remains for those removing old paint during renovations. Lead was also added to petrol. in the early 1920's Thomas Midgley discovered that the addition of Tetraethyllead (TEL) (marketed initially as Ethyl) to gasoline prevented "knocking" in car engines. The issues with lead poisoning to those working in production should have been a warning to stop but it was not until the end of the last century when leaded petrol was removed from sale.

Pictures from the Past

1930 United States - Empire State Building