A Saucerful of Sucrets

By | March 11, 2015

A couple of years ago, I was getting a new passport photo taken in my local CVS, and it took several goes to get a usable one, since the overhead lights kept reflecting off my glasses, and the clerk said that the State Department doesn’t accept that. (We couldn’t quite get rid of all the glare, but it turned out that no one has ever cared.) It didn’t help that I was vaguely sick at the time and had a cough that made the interminable photo session even more interminable.

I very rarely buy any kind of cold medication as I very rarely get sick and anything I buy expires before I ever get to use it again. But, after we had a photo we deemed usable, I trundled over to the Cough and Cold aisle and picked up a tin of Sucrets for the first time in something like a decade. Suddenly feeling like I was turning into my grandmother, I was shocked to discover that Sucrets are no longer sold in tins but in plastic containers. When did that happen?

The cough suppressant dates back to 1000 B.C. and ancient Egypt, where honey and various herbs and spices were used to suppress coughs and soothe sore throats, but it wasn’t until the 19th century and the patent medicine explosion that people started developing cough drops in earnest. In a perfectly deadpan sentence, Wikipedia says:

In the 19th century, physicians discovered morphine and heroin, which suppress coughing at its source—the brain.

Great—nothing like having a Smith Brother on your back.

Two pioneers in the field of cough suppressants (where few are chosen and fewer still are called) were, indeed, William Wallace Smith and Andrew Smith—aka the Smith Brothers. They were the sons of James Smith, a Scottish immigrant who opened an ice cream shop in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. As the company lore has it (so make of it what you will), James bought a cough drop recipe from a wandering peddler named Sly Hawkins—and if that isn’t the name of a wandering 19th-century peddler then I don’t know what is—and began to sell them in the shop. The cough drops were originally sold from a jar at the ice cream counter, but when William and Andrew took over the business, they started selling them in boxes. For purposes of brand protection, they printed their portraits on the boxes, thus becoming the most famous bearded men in the country until ZZ Top. To stress the fact that their hirsute countenances were a company trademark, they put the words “trade” and “mark” on the boxes—the word “trade” appeared under William’s face and “mark” under Andrew’s. And thus for years the two Smith Brothers were often mistakenly called Trade Smith and Mark Smith. They did not object—and in fact it became part of their branding.

When the company was bought out in the 1970s, the new owners phased out the bearded portraits—and eventually the name Smith Brothers. However, the brand was relaunched in 2011 and Trade and Mark are back and more bearded than ever.

Cough drop makers stopped using heroin (I mean in the cough drops, not recreationally) before the Smiths came along, which is probably a good thing, if for no other reason than it would have resulted in some very strange Velvet Underground songs.

One prominent ingredient in modern cough suppressants is eucalyptus oil, specifically that derived from the species Eucalyptus globulus, E. kochii, and E. polybractea, the latter two of which have the highest concentration of cineole, an organic compound that is the active ingredient in cough drops.

Eucalyptus oil is used in a wide range of applications, from cough suppressants, to insect repellants, to fragrances for soaps and lotions, to—I kid you not—fuel additives. In fact, eucalyptus oil could be used as a fuel in its own right, albeit not economically, though I bet it would make car exhausts smell a whole lot better. Oddly enough, eucalyptus trees present a fire hazard due to the flammability of eucalyptus oil—trees have been known to literally explode. Who knew koala bears led such lives of danger?

There are more than 700 species of Eucalyptus trees, virtually all of which are native to Australia, with a few species ranging as far as New Guinea and Indonesia. Eucalyptus was introduced to Europe following Captain James Cook’s expedition Down Under in 1770. The botanist on the expedition was a man named Sir Joseph Banks (1743–1820). His participation in Cook’s three-year mission (1768–1771)—which included ports of call at Brazil, Tahiti, New Zealand, and Australia—brought him instant fame upon his return home and opened some scientific doors. He served as president of the Royal Society for 41 years and made the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the crown jewel of the botanical world. Banks also appeared as a character in the novel and movie (the 1935 version) Mutiny on the Bounty.

By the way, Cook, Banks, et al., landed in Australia at a place they named Botany Bay. Wrote Cook afterward,

The great quantity of plants Mr. Banks and Dr. Solander found in this place occasioned my giving it the name of BotanistBotany Bay. (strikethrough in the original)

In 1790, Banks was introduced to Francis (né Franz) Bauer (1758–1840), a talented artist who specialized in botanical illustrations. Banks was impressed with Bauer’s art, pulled some strings, and got Bauer a gig as botanical illustrator for the Royal Botanic Gardens. It was a gig that would last for the rest of Bauer’s life. He created beautiful drawings of flowers and plants, often at the microscopic level, many of which he turned into painstakingly hand-colored lithographs. Bauer later himself became a member of the Royal Society and was appointed “Botanick Painter to His Majesty King George III.”

In 1827, Bauer received a visitor from France, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765–1833). Niépce was an inventor who had brought along some specimens of a project he was working on, specimens and a project that caught Bauer’s fancy. Bauer encouraged Niépce to present his work to the Royal Society. However, Niépce refused to share any technical details about what he was up to, and NDAs were apparently not in vogue back then, so the Royal Society pretty much told him to beat cheeks. Niépce went back to France, but left the specimens and his presentation to the Royal Society with Bauer, where they remained until Bauer’s death. They drifted from place to place and eventually vanished before being tracked down in the middle of the 20th century.

Tracked down, because one of these specimens was the first photograph ever taken.

Called “View from the Window at Le Gras,” it was taken by Niépce in 1826 or early 1827 using a process that Niépce had invented called heliography, one of the first iterations of what would eventually become what we know as photography. Niépce had been mucking about with lithographic printmaking and grew frustrated that he was unable to draw anything by hand. So he began looking into other ways of creating images. He hit upon a process in which Bitumen of Judea (a naturally occurring type of asphalt and not an Old Testament prophet), was coated on a glass or metal plate. When exposed to light, it hardened, and when the plate was rinsed with oil of lavender, the hardened areas—those exposed to light—remained. And you had, essentially, a proto-photographic image.

The drawback to the process was that it required an extraordinarily long exposure time. Later analysts of “View from the Window of Le Gras” estimate that it took eight hours to capture, and some researchers have even found evidence that the exposure lasted days. Not exactly an Instamatic.

Even as photographic processes evolved, exposure times were problematic, a problem that resulted in some of the funniest—and creepiest—images ever recorded on film.

By the 1850s, photography was starting to become all the rage, and one of the killer apps of the new process was—then as now—baby pictures. Parents up and down England’s socio-economic ladder were eager to immortalize their children on the new medium of film. Unfortunately—and any parent reading this can sympathize—the combination of squirmy children and long exposure times was not exactly conducive to ready-for-framing photographs. Even though exposures had been trimmed down to only half a minute or so, 30 seconds is still an eternity for a child to sit unmoving, and any movement would result in an indistinguishable blur (like the photographs I take even with today’s high-speed digital cameras). What to do?

Well, to help keep Baby still, you put Mommy in close proximity to Baby, or even Baby on top of Mommy, but you disguise Mommy as furniture. (I swear I am not making this up.) Hence, there emerged a whole genre of Victorian-era photographs called Hidden Mother Photographs—baby pictures that included conspicuously human-shaped lumps or adult figures crouching not entirely invisibly behind chairs. Some of them are quite hilarious—and some will haunt your dreams. A representative sample can be found here.

Photography, and perhaps even children, have gotten better since then, but even today when we pose for photos, it seems an eternity to wait for the shutter to click. Especially if you have a cough.



Bella Bathurst, “The lady vanishes: Victorian photography’s hidden mothers,” The Guardian, December 2, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/dec/02/hidden-mothers-victorian-photography.

“Hidden Mothers: Spooky Photographs Of Victorian Babies Held By Their Mothers,” Bored Panda, http://www.boredpanda.com/hidden-mother-victorian-baby-photography/.

“The First Photograph,” The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, accessed February 16, 2015, http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/exhibitions/permanent/firstphotograph/#top/.

“Joseph Banks,” Wikipedia, last modified February 5, 2015, accessed February 16 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Banks.

“Franz Bauer,” Wikipedia, last modified on August 4, 2014, accessed February 16, 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_Bauer.

“Eucalyptus oil,” Wikipedia, last modified on January 13, 2015, accessed February 16, 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eucalyptus_oil.

“Smith Brothers,” Wikipedia, last modified on December 21, 2014, accessed February 16, 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smith_Brothers

“View from the Window at Le Gras,” Wikipedia, last modified Janaury 20, 2015, accessed February 16, 2015, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/View_from_the_Window_at_Le_Gras.


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