Cure for Lice in the Trenches, 1915
The trenches of the First World War were pretty hellish – and made worse by the fact that you were also likely to become infested with lice – “Our soldiers greatest enemy in the trenches.” So here’s a cure for them advertised in the local newspapers at the time. The adverts are directed towards family members to buy for their soldiers and then post them to the trenches. It’s “Somerville’s Asiatic Body Cord”, which apparently “Exterminates all body lice and prevents them lodging on the person or underclothing.”
The lice were the potential cause of huge problems. Apart from the irritation of the bites, they could also carry typhus and other diseases. The “Asiatic Body Cord” was based on an Indian folk medicine cure. It consisted of a woollen cord tied around the waist, and which was impregnated with 2 parts mercury ointment and 1 part beeswax. The mercury ointment was presumably toxic to the lice, but it could also be toxic to the soldier too with prolonged use. “The skin absorbs its germicide properties, and these are carried to all parts of the body” says one advertisement, which isn’t great if the germicide is mercury.
At the height of production, 120,000 body cords were produced per year.
“Far superior and more effective than any insect-powder”, the advert says in relation to what was probably its main rival – Keating’s Powder, as well as Maw’s Antiverm Trench Powder.
“Keating’s Powder” was a more long-standing insect powder, used in Victorian kitchens too to rid the house of beetles and the like. This advert implies the fact that it’s been around a while with its “Business as usual!!-Beetles as usual!!-Killed as usual!!” It contained pyrethrum, an insecticide found in chrysanthemum flowers.