For Man and Beast



The Internet will lead a traveler down strange byways. I no longer remember where I started, but here I stand, at the end of a circuitous and occasionally treacherous path, suddenly full of facts about Merchant’s Gargling Oil. Let’s not linger on how I got here. I’m as confused as you are.

Merchant’s Gargling Oil is “a Liniment for Man and Beast,” a catch-all salve first produced by George W. Merchant, a druggist, in 1833. Who can guess what compelled Merchant to whip up that first batch of petroleum, soap, ammonia water, oil of amber, iodine tincture, benzine, and water? Who still can say what frame of mind found him slathering this unguent on his skin? And who, at last, will stand up and tell me why Merchant saw fit to market his concoction as “Gargling Oil” even though he intended it primarily for external use?

These mysteries belong to the ages. More certainly, we can say that Merchant’s Gargling Oil was intended to treat burns, scalds, rheumatism, flesh wounds, sprains, bruises, lame back, hemorrhoids or piles, toothache, sore throat, chilblains, and chapped hands; that the Merchant business was successful enough to produce a promotional line of almanacs, songbooks (“songsters”), and stamps; and that horses were evidently crazy for the stuff. Beyond that, this Gargling Oil is awash in contradictions. For instance, despite its external uses, you could, if you wanted to, take it internally:

Merchant’s Gargling Oil is a diffusible stimulant and carminative. It can be taken internally when such a remedy is indicated, and is a good substitute for pain killers, cordials and anodynes. For Cramps or Spasms of the Stomach, Colic, Asthma, or Internal Pain, the dose may be from fifteen to twenty drops, on sugar, or mixed with syrup in any convenient form, and repeated at intervals of three to six hours.

Though it was marketed as suitable “for Man and Beast,” it was sold in two separate versions—yellow for animals, white for people. But if a man found himself under particular duress, he could simply go ahead and use the beast version. “It will stain and discolor the skin, but not permanently,” the packaging noted.

The Gargling Oil could be found on shelves, along with other fine Merchant’s products, until 1928, when the Merchant factory in Lockport, New York, caught fire and burned to the ground. Today Merchant leaves behind a formidable body of advertisements and miscellanea, many of which bear this curious slogan, attributed to an ape:

If I am Darwin’s grandpapa,

It follows don’t you see,

That what is good for man and beast,

Is doubly good for me.

I don’t see how this follows. But then, I don’t even recall how I got here.