Hi, Jo here. One of the things I like most about writing is the unexpected things I come across when doing research.
Antimony sounds to me like a musical term or a concoction, but it's actually an element. Sb. (A good one for a quiz where they want elements that don't end with -ium.) It's also a metalloid, which means it's a sort of metal but not quite. Bear with me -- a chemist, I am not!
It has a number of uses, one of which is medical, which is where I stumbled across it. Treatments using antimony are called antimonials and they are used against some parasites, and have been for a long time, even before microbial parasites were known. In the past a lot of medicine was trial and error and antimony is also an emetic and laxitive. Anything that caused a dramatic expulsion of bodily fluids and matter was seen as "getting rid of toxins." If the illness was caused by some parasites the patient might get better, then it would be attributed to expulsion of toxins.
For a long time antimony was the only treatment for leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease spread by sand flies in the tropics. It worked by killing the parasite.
What really caught my interest however was the antimonial pill, because it was called the everlasting pill. Yes, it was reusable! If you're squeamish, you might want to bail here.
Back in the days when "getting rid of toxins" was important, a family might have an everlasting pill, which was a small ball of antimony. The person feeling a bit sluggish, or with some troubling medical condition would swallow it. In due course it would emerge, be cleaned off, and put in its box until it was next required.
If that's a bit too much for you, you might prefer the antimonial cup. This goes back to Roman times. It was a small cup, perhaps half a pint or less, made mostly of antimony. It was filled with wine and left to stand for a while to absorb the chemical. Then the wine was drunk and the person threw up. The Romans used it when they'd overeating. Yup. Classical bulimia.
The cups were in common use up to the 19th century. The one on the right was owned by Captain Cook.
This got me thinking of popular remedies. When I was growing up Syrup of Figs was the household remedy for constipation. There were also Fennings Little Healers. These were tiny round pills and a standard issue in my house. I liked them because they were tiny and easy to swallow. (Photos by Leo Reynolds)
The main ingredient was, I read, ipecacuanha, which I know as an emetic, but apparently in small doses it's an expectorant.
Of course if we go way back opium was a common ingredient in many household remedies. It doubtless worked well in some cases but if used too much it was addictive.
Does your family have any favorite remedies? Do you know of other odd ones from the past, and did they work?