And this is why the FDA banned sneezing powder in 1919

Illustration for article titled And this is why the FDA banned sneezing powder in 1919

Not all mysteries in the world lead to glorious revelations. Some of them are a bit more humble. One enduring scientific mystery is the earliest form of sneezing powder. A fortune was built on this special formula, but when it was found to be toxic, it was recalled. Its inventor refused to ever identify what it was, but some people say they know.

I've never liked pranks. To me, they're just mean things that people do to you when they suspect you're too beaten down to yell at them for it. But S. S. Adams liked a prank or two. He eventually amassed a huge fortune selling joy buzzers, flowers and cigarettes that squirted water. To start it all out, though, he marketed sneezing powder. Today, sneezing powder is likely to contain hellebore - an herb found to be an irritant. It's even more likely than that to contain nothing whatsoever, since even hellebore has been known cause fainting and heart problems while an ineffective product is found to cause little more than a few minutes of emotional irritation.

Adams, however, went all out. He tested his product on rooms full of executives, and blew it into the path of marching bands. Both had to stop for minutes until the sneezing fit cleared up. It's lucky that Adams made a small fortune with Cachoo sneezing powder in the relatively short time between 1904, when it was put on the market and 1919, when it was banned by the FDA - because he would almost certainly have had to move away from the people he tested it on. He never revealed what his formula was.


No one's entirely sure what Adams used to make Cachoo. It depends on what he had easy access to. He worked for a company that made coal tar products, specifically dyes. Coal tar is what gets leftover when coal is made into more purified fuel. It's a viscous black substance that can be used to pave roads, but is also added to medicated shampoo, and used as a base for clothing or even food dye. There are plenty of by-products in the process that can - but probably shouldn't - be used as nasal irritants. These would be easily accessible, and, if they were by-products, cheap to acquire.

But more recent chemists think that to make Cachoo, Adams was actually pilfering one of the dyes that he was supposed to be selling. Dianisidine is a chemical that, with coal tar, makes a beautiful blue dye. It's also carcinogenic and, according to the CDC should be flushed from every part of the body it makes contact with. A sneeze response would certainly help with that. Dianisidine was first discovered in 1894, when people noticed that it, in combination with copper salts, made a pretty color on fabrics that set in faster than indigo. People would have been using it a great deal, especially in the manufacturing centers, testing out new products.

Unfortunately, over a few years they found out that it ran when exposed to acid, or even heavy perspiration, bleeding blue on anyone who wore clothing dyed with it. Its color might have worked for soap products, but it was useless in clothing manufacturing. The repeated testing, would have given Adams ample opportunity to see people sneezing. The eventual abandonment of it as a potential clothing dye may have given him the ability to pick it up at a good price for his initial stock of Cachoo. But is that what he did?

Obviously, testing isn't an option. Few people are willing to get multiple facefulls of toxic chemicals in order to test which one makes them sneeze the most. So, although people are pretty sure that they've figured out the secret of Cachoo, this may be one of the eternal mysteries of the universe. Now the squirting lapel flower - that one we understand.


Top Image: CDC

Via The New York Sun, Sir John Hargrave's Mischief Maker's Manual, and The Application of Coal Tar Dyestuffs.


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Interestingly I thought that the banning of sneezing powder in *1919* would have been more related to not spreading the Spanish Influenza around. I certainly wasn't expecting this gem.