Bought Some Carbolic Acid

19-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Tuesday, August 11, 1914:  Had to trot up to McEwensville to get some carbolic acid for Pa. The storekeeper said I should be careful of it; Well I didn’t swallow any if that’s what was meant. It must be fierce stuff. I could smell it through the bottle.

carbolic acid

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

What happened? Why did Grandma’s father need carbolic acid?

Carbolic acid (also known as phenol) was an antiseptic that was used to clean wounds. It was also used as a disinfectant.

It is a poison, but in small amounts it is sometimes used as an ingredient in some oral analgesics. For example, in more recent years carbolic acid has been used as an ingredient in Chloraseptic spray and Carmex.

31 Responses

  1. Did they have farm animals? Maybe it was for them? (Guess I won’t buy Carmex or Chloralseptic any more!!!)

  2. Wow – I knew Chloraseptic was strong stuff!
    I can sense a playful tone in Grandma’s entries recently that I don’t recall being there in the past….perhaps that young man she mentions occasionally is the reason?

  3. I hope he was needing it for something that didn’t require a long time to heal.
    Grandma sounds perkier. I agree with Dianna on that. I’m glad, she needed to get her smile-on. :)

  4. In high school biology back in the dark ages, we were instructed to collect insects for a display over the summer and have it ready to hand in by Oct or something. We were told to go to the pharmacy and get some cyanide to use to kill the insects before mounting them. We each took a jar with a lid and the pharmacist gave us some in the bottom.

    No way that would be allowed today. None of us died.

    • I can also remember doing one of those insect collections. I think that we were told to use carbon tetrachloride. That also probably won’t be allowed today.

  5. We did lots back in the day that isn’t even legal now! haha

  6. Pretty bottle!

  7. I was struck by the marvelous color of your blue bottle. A google search turned up an interesting article about bottle collecting in a Baltimore newspaper. These are the first few paragraphs, emphasis mine:

    History’s throwaways and discards emerged as coveted attractions Sunday when bottles, vials and flasks that spent decades buried in dumps and privies returned in translucent glory.

    Billed as the “largest one-day bottle show in the world,” the Baltimore Bottle Club’s 33rd annual sale and exhibit, held in Essex, drew container connoisseurs who didn’t flip a cork over paying $750 for a rare cobalt-blue poison bottle produced at Carr-Lowrey, a factory on the Middle Branch of the Patapsco in Westport.

    “In bottle collecting, color is king,” said collector Steve Charing, a Howard County enthusiast who produced a display of container glassware associated with barber shops. In addition to bottles that held hair tonics, the astringent witch hazel and scent bay rum, he showed off delicate Victorian hand-blown glass decanters in tones of amber, cranberry and chartreuse.

  8. I wonder if it was used for humans and animals.

    • I’ve wondered the same thing. I think that there was less differentiation between treatments for humans and treatments for animals a hundred years ago than what there is now.

  9. I wonder if it would clean farm implements. I remember my grandfather having to clean his apple pruning shears and saws, but I don’t know what he used. But I do know he sprayed the trees with a cyanide mixture. And he lived to the ripe old age of 98.

  10. This is a puzzle. I will have to remember to ask my Mom is she remembers it being used on the farm.

  11. Maybe for the cows?
    Diana xo

  12. I’m glad I didn’t have to carry it home

  13. I don’t go back quite as far as Helena but I’m getting close. Carbolic Acid or Phenol was commonly used for medicinal purposes in animals and humans and is still very useful for healing and disinfecting. Watkins and other distributors of home remedies sold carbolic salve that was used for many skin irritations. (I still have a small amount of it that I use sunburned ears) There is no danger in the diluted quantities that are in Chloraseptic and other modern products. It is not likely that one can buy pure phenol these days because it is rather dangerous in full strength because it is readily absorbed through the skin. Some fifty years ago I was given a formula for healing cuts and other injuries on animals that was made up of one part phenol, two parts turpentine and three parts linseed oil. The phenol provided the disinfectant and it is nearly forgotten that turpentine promotes healing. The linseed oil kept the other ingredients from draining away from the wound. I found it to be a very effective formula but didn’t quite meet the claim by the person who gave me the formula that, “It would heal a cut on a fence post.”

    • Thank you Jim for the very informative comments. Your comments give me a much better understanding of how carbolic acid was used. I’ve seen old “recipes” for salves that called for turpentine. I wonder why some things that worked well in the past have fallen out of favor.

  14. In Carmex?! Thanks for letting me know!

  15. Sheryl I see that Jim has given you the information you were looking for. My Mom asked around the town and yes they often used carbolic acid in salve form for the cows sore udders and other wounds. It was also used for sores and cuts on humans as well.

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