Musterole was a medicinal rub that was used similar to Vicks VapoRub but could also be used similarly to Ben Gay and other muscle and joint pain rubs. It is often said that Musterole existed long before Vicks Vapo-Rub, but this is an erroneous assumption, as we shall see.
Musterole was first introduced in 1905, and the company was incorporated in 1907. The name comes from mustard, one of the principal ingredients. Today, Musterole is no longer made, but can sometimes be found through mail-order.
Musterole’s mechanism of action was as a counter-irritant. Counter-irritants are agents such as methyl salicylate, camphor, or menthol that actually cause irritation to the skin, but in so doing provide some relief of muscle or joint pain by dilating the blood vessels in the area and increasing blood flow, leading to a feeling of warmth. This provides a sort of masking effect for pain. All the mechanisms by which the agents work are not known, but they have been used for many years. Mustard is an irritant and in the right dose can work as a counter-irritant. A mustard-poultice laid on the chest is a time-honored remedy for cold and cough symptoms, helping to relieve chest congestion. Musterole was basically a pre-made mustard preparation, but it also contained other counter-irritant agents.
Although Musterole was long used safely in the same way as Vicks or arthritis rubs, in the early days of the patent-medicine craze, its claims went much further than simply relief of minor aches or pain, or the relief of congestion. Indeed, the way in which Musterole was advertised in the early days may have made it quite dangerous.
When we apply a mustard poultice, although it may burn, and even blister the skin if left on too long, it is normally safe and somewhat effective for those of us without a serious sensitivity to mustard. However, Musterole was known to be a mixture of mustard oil, menthol, and camphor in a base of lard or some similar fat. Applied to the skin in this way, pure mustard oil is much stronger than a simple mustard poultice, and when mixed with a fat such a lard, it may not only blister the skin but cause a serious external reaction that spreads beyond the point of application. Not only this, but systemic reactions might occur, either through inhalation or absorption through the skin.
Indeed “A Case of Poisoning by Musterole” was described in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Dr. David I. Macht, of Baltimore, in 1917. It is unknown if the patient was simply allergic to the active ingredients, or the preparation was too strong. Most likely, it was some combination of the two.
One thing that might happen if mustard oil is used injudiciously, is blistering of the skin. Cartons of Musterole in the early 1900’s guaranteed that Musterole “Will Not Blister.” Musterole claimed in ads that the salve “does the work of an old-fashioned mustard plaster, without the blister.” This is curious since mustard oil is just as likely, if not more likely, to blister than a plaster of mustard, depending on the concentration used. Once a mustard plaster is removed, the residue can be more easily washed off.
The Musterole Company of Cleveland, Ohio also claimed Musterole was:
Guaranteed under the Pure Food and Drugs Act June 30, 1906..For coughs and colds in the chest, pneumonia, asthma, bronchitis, croup, rheumatism, pleurisy, headache, neuralgia, sore joints, and muscles.
There is nothing like Musterole for sore throat, tonsillitis, stiff neck, neuralgia, congestion, rheumatism, sore muscles, sprains, bronchitis, bruises, croup, asthma, headache, pleurisy, lumbago, pains and aches of the backs or joints, chillblains, frosted feet, colds of the chest (it prevents pneumonia).
It relieves pain almost instantly.
Musterole is the best and most powerful external preperation ever discovered for the relief of inflammation, congestion and all nerve pain.
Obviously, these claims were sensational, and some of the recommendations, such as using Musterole for asthma, could be dangerous. For other complaints, the preparation might make things worse. The only realistic claim that could be made is that it provided some relief for minor aches and pain, and perhaps for cold and chest congestion if used as a chest rub.
It certainly would not have done anything for tonsillitis, let alone neuralgia or croup. Nor could it prevent pneumonia. The prevention of pneumonia, by the way, was a common claim for almost any patent medicine supposed to treat colds or bronchitis.
Although its origins were dubious, Musterole survived and after 1920 was distributed worldwide. It became not only a trusted preparation in the 1930’s and 1940’s, and even through to the ’50’s, for the relief of aches, pains, and congestion. It was offered in three strengths, a children’s mild Musterole, and a regular an extra strong for adults. It was overshadowed by Vicks VapoRub and other drugs.
Many like to claim that Vicks Vapo-Rub was an imitator, but this is far from the truth. Although the two products are similar, they were actually born at about the same time. The Vicks product had a distinct advantage over Musterole. It smelled much more pleasant. Musterole stank! Or, at least, it hit you over the head with its strong smell.
Vicks VapoRub started out in 1905 as Richardson’s Croupe and Pneumonia Cure Salve. As you can see, the claims were inflated just as for Musterole. It contained menthol, camphor, and petroleum jelly. Before long, the over-long name was changed to Magic Croup Salve, then Vicks Salve, then Vicks VapoRub.
People who grew up on Musterole are sometimes not aware that Vicks VapoRub had just as loyal a following. It was quite popular, for example, during the great flu epidemic of 1918.
The alliterative name, Vicks VapoRub, probably had a lot to do with the product’s continued success, as Musterole slowly faded from drugstore shelves. Musterole was bought by the Plough Company in 1956, which continued producing it until they were merged with Schering Pharmaceutical in 1970 to become Schering-Plough, which was in 2009 absorbed by Merck and Co. At some point before this, Musterole had ceased being manufactured. It had faded into obscurity, however, to the point that nobody seems to know when it stopped being available.
If you’ve used Vicks VapoRub, you’ve probably had one container that you used for a couple of years, if not more. So too, would Musterole be used. One container went so far that by the time you were needing a new one, the product had disappeared without your having realized it.
Although Vicks VapoRub clears your sinuses and causes a little eye-watering, the effect is mostly pleasant. According to the those who experienced it in their youth, Musterole, with its mustard oil, burned the eyes, caused the nose to run uncontrollably, and stank up the sheets and the house. I am glad I grew up on Vicks! Some seem to have unpleasant memories of Musterole, and would rather have gone to school sick than to stay home a receive a Musterole rub, while others have fond and nostalgic memories of the stinky salve.
Although Musterole is no longer made, it is possible to find a few jars, here and there, being offered for sale on the internet.
If you do investigate the ingredients used in many of the old-time patent medicines, you may often wonder why certain ingredients were used that would seem to have no purpose. After all, some ingredients that we know today to be either extremely harsh, or poisonous, would seem obviously to have been thought to be therapeutic. Yet, you will also find that they contained lots of sugar and more pleasant culinary herbs. This is because the medicines would have tasted awful without a lot of attention paid to masking the bitter, acidic, or pungent flavors of the preparations. Even alcohol, although it served a “medicinal” purpose, was a good way to cover up other more unpleasant flavors.
Update: 1/4/2019 – Musterole Available
I was contacted by a RetroBrands (Retrobrands.net) representative who let me know that the company offers “an updated all natural version of Musterole.” This product is available through Vermont Country Store as well as many other retailers. The representative used the term mail order companies which I thought was a nice retro touch. I cannot attest as to how this modern product compares to the original. I perused their website and found that the company also offers many other old-time brands. They even have HaiKarate aftershave, Freshen–Up Gum, Mr. Microphone and many other nostalgia-inducing products.