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Which Popular Condiment Was Sold as a Medicine in the 1830s?

Ketchup, now a beloved staple at dinner tables worldwide, had a surprising past as a medicinal tonic in the 1830s. Marketed for its purported digestive benefits, this tangy sauce has evolved significantly from its early health claims. How did ketchup make this fascinating transition from pharmacy shelves to our pantries? Join us as we uncover the story behind this culinary transformation.

Ketchup is among the most widely-used condiments in the United States (and in many other countries). It's not much of a stretch to assume that most people have ketchup in their fridges right now, but did you know that it was once sold as a medicine? In fact, when it was marketed in the 1830s, ketchup was supposed to treat a wide range of ailments.

Unlike the condiment we know and love today, the earliest versions of ketchup involved ingredients such as mushrooms and anchovies. Some recipes began including tomatoes in the early 19th century, but an Ohio physician named John Cooke Bennett took things a step further in 1834. Rather than creating a sauce, Bennett marketed his ketchup as a medicine. Sold in capsule form, Dr. Bennett claimed that his tomato extract pills could cure everything from rheumatism and jaundice to indigestion and diarrhea.

Ketchup pills were sold as a medicine in the 1830s – they were supposed to treat diarrhea, indigestion, and jaundice.
Ketchup pills were sold as a medicine in the 1830s – they were supposed to treat diarrhea, indigestion, and jaundice.

Trying to capitalize on Bennett's success, a variety of similar products soon hit the market, yet many of them didn't even contain tomatoes. In fact, many of these pills were simply laxatives. Their far-fetched medicinal claims (such as healing broken bones) were so outrageous that the entire market for ketchup pills collapsed around 1850.

Will the real ketchup please stand up?

  • American scientist and horticulturalist James Mease is credited with publishing one of the earliest tomato ketchup recipes in 1812.

  • The tomato was once known as the "love apple" and praised for its aphrodisiac qualities. Some early ketchup recipes featuring the "love apple" contained alcohol, too.

  • The popularity of ketchup skyrocketed when the H.J. Heinz Company began producing ketchup from a blend of tomatoes, brown sugar, distilled vinegar, salt, and spices. It was originally introduced as “catsup” in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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    • Ketchup pills were sold as a medicine in the 1830s – they were supposed to treat diarrhea, indigestion, and jaundice.
      By: Pixel Embargo
      Ketchup pills were sold as a medicine in the 1830s – they were supposed to treat diarrhea, indigestion, and jaundice.