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For That Fresh Feeling

Lysol trade literatureLysol trade literature, Sterling Drug Co.

I was watching Boardwalk Empire recently, which is set in 1920s Atlantic City New Jersey. The period details, sets and costumes seem accurate, and are one of the highlights of the gangster drama. My attention was caught by a throwaway scene with the heroine, Margaret Schroeder, in her bathroom, reading the instructions for a feminine product, Lysol.

Yes, Lysol. The audience was of course, meant to be shocked (I was), and so far this has not been referenced by the character again (no rushes to the hospital, just an intimation that she might have used the Lysol, but no confirmation.) Just another bit of period detail.

At the Smithsonian Libraries, we are surrounded by American trade literature, so It isn't unusual to see some catalogs for patent medicines with what we would now consider outrageous claims for a product's miracle qualities. Unfortunately, we don't have 1920s-era Lysol trade-lit in the collection, but a quick internet search confirmed that a product that is currently being touted as industrial-strength against e-coli, H1N1 and myriad other pesky germs was used as a feminine product through the 1960s:

In the late 1920s Lysol disinfectant began being marketed by maker Lysol, Incorporated and distributor Lehn & Fink, Inc. as a feminine hygiene product. They intimated that … Lysol solution prevented infections … and thereby preserved marital bliss. This Lysol solution was also used as a birth control agent … The use of Lysol was later discouraged by the medical community … and may have masked more serious problems that certain odors indicated in the first place. All the same, Joseph De Lee, a prominent American obstetrician who held great sway over American obstetric practice through his writings, encouraged the use of Lysol during labor. … In the US, from around 1930 to 1960 … Lysol disinfectant solution was the most popular form of birth control.—Wikipedia

The mind reels, as Lysol is touted as so strong, it must be diluted to be safe and effective:

The active ingredient in many of the Lysol products is benzalkonium chloride. This ingredient is highly toxic to fish … very highly toxic to aquatic invertebrates … moderately toxic to birds … and slightly toxic ("safe") to mammals. …

Lysol is sold extremely concentrated and must be diluted with water to be used safely. One teaspoon of Lysol should be added to one gallon of water. This liquid can then be used as a cleaning product and can be stored for later use in an empty bottle. This mixture will kill 99.99% of germs. Adding more lysol to this solution will not kill any more germs and may endanger the user's health.—Wikipedia

Seems like a very risky way to get that so-fresh feeling …

—Elizabeth Periale, ably assisted by Alexia MacClain & Lu Rossignol, photos

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