Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic

Grove's Tasteless Chill TonicGrove’s Chill Tonic may not have been exactly tasteless, but in 1878 he suspended quinine in liquid form. In other words, the ingredients in Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic were not soluble, but suspended in the syrup. The tonic became an overnight sensation and a household name for decades.

“I had a little drug business in Paris, Tennessee, just barely making a living, when I got up a real invention, tasteless quinine. As a poor man and a poor boy, I conceived the idea that whoever could produce a tasteless chill tonic, his fortune was made.”—E.W. Grove

And make a fortune he did, although while his chill tonic was still in the experimental stage, North Poplar Street neighbors in Paris sometimes became upset with Grove as odors drifted from his pharmaceuticals bubbling in a kettle outdoors. Ironically, some of these families, including the O.C. Barton’s, became millionaires after investing in Grove’s Paris Medicine Company.

Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic was created not as a cure, but as a preventative and relief of malaria and its resulting chills and fever. Those who remember taking the chill tonic did not agree with the “tasteless” billing, although it was better than taking straight quinine. Quinine has been used for more than three centuries and, until the 1930s, it was the only effective malaria treatment. The chill tonic was so popular the British army made it standard issue for every soldier going off to mosquito infested lands and, by 1890, more bottles of Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic were sold than bottles of Coca-Cola.

Quinine, cinchonine and cinchonidine are alkaloids extracted from powered cinchona bark. These active ingredients in Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic were in a crystallized form. To make the intensely bitter taste more palatable, sugar syrup and lemon flavorings were added. The tonic had to be shaken and quickly swallowed before the active ingredients settled back onto the bottom of the bottle.

Taken as directed, the tonic was equally good for adults and children. Acute attacks of malaria required two tablespoonfuls, three times a day. For control of recurrent attacks, two tablespoonfuls, morning and evening, were to be taken for a period of eight weeks or during the entire malarial season.

Unlike many turn-of-the-century patent medicines, Grove’s products contained little or no alcohol. Grove, a staunch prohibitionist, frowned on alcohol at his Grove Park Inn. In fact, he owned a prohibitionist newspaper, the Atlanta Georgian, now the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Quinine manufacturers initially received their ingredients from suppliers of cinchona bark which grew chiefly in the South American countries of Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador. Cultivated cinchona trees were later found in Java, Columbia, Ceylon, Jamaica, Bolivia and India. The Paris Medicine Company established branch offices in London, which was the chief market for bark from India. Other offices were established in Toronto, Canada; Sydney, Australia; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Paris, France.

Malaria, once known as the “scourge of the South” struck as far north as Grove’s home area of the Tennessee Valley. Springtime flooding resulted in large areas of stagnant water. These pools became a breeding ground for mosquitoes, the primary carriers. Once the Tennessee Valley Authority put flood control projects into effect in the ‘30s and ‘40s, regional malaria subsided. As other areas began mosquito elimination programs, domestic chill tonic sales plummeted.

It was the Laxative Bromo Quinine, the world’s first cold tablets, that kept the Paris Medicine Company afloat. Grove’s Laxative Bromo Quinine was a treatment for “La Grippe,” which was the early 20th century term for an influenza epidemic. Each tablet contained two grains of phenacetin and was also effective for colds and headaches. Grove’s son-in-law, Fred Seely, invented the machine that created, sorted and counted these cold tablets.

From the bottom of the box: “An excellent remedy for Coughs and Colds. Relieves the Cough and also the feverish conditions and Headache, which are usually associated with colds. The second or third dose will move the bowels well within 8 or 10 hours, when the cold will be relieved….”

Grove was understandably worried about copycats and combated them by educating patrons. “Imitators use the names as nearly like Laxative Bromo Quinine as they dare, but they can not use the signature of E.W. Grove which appears on every box of the genuine. BE SURE IT IS LAXATIVE BROMO QUININE.”

The chill tonic continued to be produced by Grove Laboratories even after it became a division of the Bristol-Myers Co. in 1957. Bristol-Myers continued to use the familiar orange packaging with the original “laughing baby” trademark.

–David W. Webb