Remember When Cincinnati’s Best Cure for Colds Was Smoking?

A popular remedy in the early 20th century involved cubeb cigarettes that contained a dried Asian herb.

Catarrh is a word rarely used outside humorous contexts these days, but for most of Cincinnati’s history catarrh was nothing to sneeze at, so to speak. It was, up until about 1940 or so, the accepted medical term for serious nasal congestion and throat irritation—in other words, a bad cold or allergies.

In those pre-antibiotic days, catarrh could be deadly. The city of Cincinnati, between 1865 and 1912, recorded more than 2,000 deaths for which catarrh was a contributing factor. A 1916 advertisement in The Cincinnati Post blamed catarrh for “consumption, general debility, idiocy and insanity.” Another ad, from 1913, claimed catarrh led to bronchitis, pneumonia, cancer, and even blindness.

Billed as “A delightful smoke for sick or well,” Smo-ko was one of several tobacco-less cigarettes sold in Cincinnati.

The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune (1914), image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Given such lethal associations, you won’t be surprised to learn that newspapers were full of advertisements for potions to cure catarrh, most of which involved substantial infusions of alcohol and mixtures of herbs sure to confound the average botanist. An 1899 advertisement for Stuart’s Catarrh Tablets did not exaggerate when proclaiming:

“The list of catarrh cures is as long as the moral law and the forms in which they are administered, numerous and confusing, from sprays, inhalers, washes, ointments and salves, to powders, liquids and tablets.”

Buried in that list—probably ranked as one of the inhalers—is a curious mode of administration that proved popular for decades: smoking. From the mid-1880s onward, Cincinnati newspapers and pharmacies offered specially prepared cigarettes intended to alleviate the dreaded symptoms of catarrh. Among the most popular were cubeb cigarettes or “cubebs.” Wrapped in standard rice-paper, just like ordinary cigarettes, cubebs were stuffed with the dried, ground berries of a Southeast Asian relative of the pepper plant.

Although often compared to allspice and sometimes employed to cut pure patchouli oil, cubeb carried with it the hint of the illicit. In 1914, an artist at The Post complained that the Chinese working next door to the newspaper offices were smoking opium. It turned out to be the telegraph editor, smoking cubebs to treat a head cold. Young boys often graduated from smoking corn silks and wild vines to cubebs until they were old enough to purchase tobacco cigarettes on their own. In Meredith Willson’s musical The Music Man, conman Harold Hill warns the townsfolk of River City that their children are picking up bad habits around the billiard hall:

They’re tryin’ out Bevo, tryin’ out cubebs /
Tryin’ out Tailor-mades like Cigarette Fiends!

Bevo was a non-alcoholic malt beverage, a steppingstone to beer in the same way that cubebs led the way to tailor-made (machine-made) cigarettes. Cubebs were considered appropriate for women, and it appears that a lot of women smoked cubebs until their husbands got used to them smoking, then switched to cigarettes. The Cincinnati Enquirer [December 31, 1944] drew the connection to juvenile delinquency:

“Smoking cubeb cigarettes was something that intrigued little boys. They achieved the appearance of evil, astonished a possible nearsighted neighbor, and at the same time were in a position to maintain that they were not touching tobacco. They had a terrible flavor, but a boy got a big kick out of being seen with one between his lips.”

Despite the somewhat unsavory reputation, cubebs had their fans, including Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of the Tarzan series. He reminisced for his old school yearbook that, had it not been for cubebs, there might not have been a Tarzan.

James M. Munyon’s homeopathic inhaler pumped herbal fumes through the nasal passages of his desperate customers hoping to alleviate the symptoms of catarrh.

Cincinnati Enquirer (1905), image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Cubeb cigarettes proved so popular that competitors arose, who based their smokeables on herbs (usually not specified) other than cubeb. Smo-Ko tobacco-less cigarettes, for instance, sold itself as “A delightful smoke for sick or well. Everybody likes them. Unlike tobacco or cubeb cigarettes, they taste good, smell good, and are good.”

Dr. Blosser’s Cigarettes, though containing “medicinal herbs, flowers and berries,” categorically contained no tobacco or cubebs.

In addition to respiratory ailments, cubeb also was employed for other less openly discussed diseases. There was no question that cubeb oils had some effect upon the mucous membranes and that sensitive membranes occur at various unmentionable places in the body, so early advertisements often propounded the effectiveness of cubeb concoctions upon gleet, fluor albus and seminal weakness, all symptoms of gonorrhea.

Cubeb also found its way into various nooks and crannies of the pharmacological inventory. Cubeb was part of a concoction given to children before bedtime to prevent bedwetting. The formulation has probably evolved over the years, but cubeb was also one of the original ingredients in Vick’s Croup and Pneumonia Salve, later known as Vick’s Vapo-Rub. Cubeb also helps flavor various gins, including Hendrick’s and Bombay Sapphire.

Cubebs made a slight return in the 1960s, just as the dangers of tobacco usage started sinking into the national consciousness. Dr. Theodore R. Van Dellen’s syndicated health column for January 22, 1969 in The Enquirer was titled “Those Cubebs” and reported that physicians around the country were prescribing cubebs as a way to wean from tobacco:

“Dr. Viginia E. Edwards of Mansfield, Ohio, still recommends the cubeb cigarette for her patients with angina, heart trouble and peptic ulcer who can’t or won’t give up smoking.”

By then, cubebs were hard to come by and few drug stores carried them anymore. They’d instead been consigned to fans of musicals and medicinal trivia.

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