For colds and flu, Musterole remains my dream panacea

Musterole ad from 1936: “Don’t Neglect a Cold!” (click on thumbnail to enlarge–image in public domain, source: The gallery of Graphic Design)

My contractor had to delay repairing my kitchen floor for several days while caring for his sick boy, who had a chest cold. After the second postponement, I sent him this text message:

Vicks on his chest, back and throat might help; too bad you don’t have Musterole.

Ah, Musterole; how easily that word came off my thumbs. As a boy, the sticky salve was the bane of my existence – so much so that even when I was really ill, I dragged myself to school to avoid it.

So even as a deterrent, Musterole did the job. In short, it was the definitive American cold and flu remedy long before Vicks and its imitators became pop culture choices.

And decades before we discovered that Windex could address all ills on “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” on top of that, savvy advertising gave Musterole credit for ameliorating numerous musculo-skeletal aches and pains. Who needs a doctor or a pharmacy?

Musterole also was the stuff of grass roots entrepreneurship. According to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History, the product had a classic early-20th century development story behind it:

The Musterole Co., manufacturer of a famous over-the-counter ointment, began in 1905 after pharmacist A. L. McLaren developed a mustard ointment at his Cedar and E. 97th St. drugstore. As the ointment’s popularity grew, McLaren was unable to maintain his supply and eventually restricted its sale to regular customers.

The mustard preparation’s success convinced George Miller, owner of a nearby hardware store, to sell his store and invest in an expanded production and packaging facility for the product. After Miller and McLaren mobilized additional investors, the Musterole Co. was incorporated in 1907. The company soon moved to 4612 St. Clair and then to 1748 E. 27th St.

The medication, known as Musterole, was used to relieve chest congestion, coughs, minor throat irritation, and muscle aches. Musterole was distributed throughout the U.S. and Canada as a convenient substitute for the old-fashioned mustard plaster and achieved worldwide distribution after World War I.

The ointment remained a popular, locally produced proprietary medication until 1956, when Musterole was bought by the Plough Corp. of Tennessee and production facilities were moved to Memphis. After Plough merged with the Scherring Pharmaceutical Co. in 1970, the resulting Scherring-Plough Corp. continued to manufacture the product and offer it for sale.

Except all that needs updating.

In 2009, Merck & Co. consumed Scherring-Plough, but it seems Musterole had left drugstores years earlier.

Today, you can’t find the original product anywhere, except some specialty merchants online who have a re-labeled salve of which I’ve always been skeptical, and auction Web sites which are selling old products as antiques, as well as the re-labeled gunk. And for the legal record, the original Musterole trademark expired in 2012.

Back in the day, though, Musterole assured your cold was gone, whether through sweat tactics or otherwise, within a day of application.

At least that was my family’s past experience. When we moved overseas, Mom made sure to bring along a fresh jar of Musterole. Not knowing of its upcoming paucity, we still milked that container for years, even as we hoarded more.

Every summer, when visitors from the States came calling, one thing we always requested ahead of their trips was to pack some of the nasty stuff – just in case we ran out.

And nasty it was. The smell was a combination of menthol, mustard, and camphor that wasn’t so much malodorous as it was overbearing. For example, if one of my sisters – whose rooms were in the back of the house – was home sick with a cold, I knew right away from walking in the front door after school that Mom had applied the reeking goop.

Never mind when I had Musterole slathered on me.

Eyes would tear, nostrils drip, and I’d soak my bed in sweat. This required a change of sheets the next day, as well as a chlorinated wash of said linens. It was worse than having a chain smoker in the house – which, in my father, we did.

Yet nothing worked as well. When I returned stateside for college, Mom sent me along with a spare jar. During those next four years, I think I used it once or twice. When I did, however, my roommates and everyone in the hallway were peeved at me. I’m surprised they didn’t stage a “ban Musterole from campus” demonstration right then and there.

Despite their unpleasant nature, it’s interesting how the most effective remedies are often the ones we dispose of.

When Mom heard of my contractor’s woes with his sick son, the first thing she said was: “Tell that young man to put some Musterole on his boy, and he won’t have to tell you he’s held up for another day.”

If only illness, and contractors, were that easy to deal with. In my dreams, perhaps, they’d probably be so, providing we leave the current pretenders behind, and could unearth another jar of the real, old-school Musterole. 

Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist.

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Telly Halkias

About Telly Halkias

Award-winning freelance journalist from Portland's West End. Writes columns, features, and drama reviews for newspapers in Vermont, where he also owns a home, Massachusetts, New York and Maine.. Former weekend columnist at the now defunct Portland Sun. Longtime adjunct professor of college English/history/humanities. Has lived overseas for 15 years, and all over the U.S. Veteran. Small business owner. Published poet. ATCA drama critic. Loves all things outdoors, and Siberian huskies.