In the mid-1890s, the Sterling Remedy Co. introduced Cascarets Candy Cathartic, a brown tablet marketed as a pleasant-tasting purgative. Before long, the company was selling more than 5 million boxes a year.

The key ingredient: cascara, the dried bark of the cascara tree native to the Pacific Northwest. Indigenous people had used it for centuries as a laxative. Cascara acts as a powerful stimulant, exciting the smooth muscle cells of the large intestine and triggering “propulsive” contractions.

But the medicinal claims for Cascarets went beyond its laxative effect. The tablets were also touted as a cure for headaches, biliousness, sour stomach, indigestion, acid reflux, bad breath, heartburn and “lazy liver.” Testimonials attested to its effectiveness in curing pimples and, in one case, eliminating an 18-foot tapeworm. Ew.

Cascarets continued to be sold until at least the mid-1940s. The ads were everywhere. This one, from the Minneapolis Journal, features a gripping headline and a patently unscientific claim: “A Cascaret produces the same sort of Natural result that a Six Mile walk in the country would produce.” More convenient as well: You don’t want to be too far from a bathroom when propulsive contractions take hold.
1906 Cascarets ad, Minneapolis Journal

1906 Cascarets ad, Minneapolis Journal

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