The reported mortality rates were shocking. Thomas Bull in his ‘Hints to Mothers’ (1854) estimated that three-quarters of all deaths from opium occurred in children under five. One nine-month-old baby overdosed on four drops of laudanum given over a nine-hour period. Henry Chavasse, in ‘Advice to a Mother on the Management of Her Offspring’ (1860), concluded that “all quack medicines should be banished from the nursery”.
Teething was seen as one of the “most perilous transitions” in the 19th century, linked to insomnia and drooling, deafness and epilepsy. Steedman’s Soothing Powders, first made in the early 1800s, fought an intense battle with its rival Stedman’s Teething Powders. Stedman’s adoption of an imitative brand name led to Steedman’s creating its double EE logo to emphasise its originality and distinctiveness. Ironically, neither manufacturer could exploit an ethical advantage in their promotions, as both products contained calomel (mercurous chloride), about which, Bull says, “pages might be written upon the evil effects which have resulted from its indiscriminate use in the nursery”.
Fennings’ Children’s Cooling Powders for teething were produced by Dr Alfred Fennings from the 1840s onwards. Smiling babies and devoted mothers adorned Fennings’ adverts and booklets, and he emphasised his place on the moral high ground: “The Omniscient God never intended that nearly half of the babies born in this country should die, as they now do, before they are five years of age. Carelessness, poisonous white Calomel Powders, and a general ignorance of simple safe remedies to cure their peculiar diseases, have been the fatal causes.” The first published formula for the Fennings' powders in 1909 revealed that they contained 70 per cent potassium chlorate and 30 per cent powdered liquorice.