It’s made from plant seeds named for their resemblance to a tick and has been known through history as the ‘golden nectar of nausea’ and the ‘fascist punishment’, among other things. When combined with chlorine, it forms a “a substance of horny character” (immature as I am, I may have laughed at that) and its taste has been commonly described as repulsive. We find the distinctive cobalt blue bottles it used to come in on 19th and early 20th century sites throughout Christchurch, where it was used to traumatise young children in the name of good health for decades.
Got it yet?
I am, of course, talking about castor oil, the scourge of the bowels (apparently), lubricator of flying machines and converter of communists (I’ll explain later, it’s kind of awful). Castor oil, which comes from the seeds of the Ricinus communis plant, has been cultivated in Europe since at least the 16th century, and was used during the 19th and early 20th centuries for a plethora of things, some of them more dubious than others.
Primarily, it was used for personal health care, mostly advertised as a laxative and/or purgative for cases of constipation and diarrhoea, over eating or general digestive problems. One specific account describes it as “a medicament for putting the internal economy in order after bouts of overeating,” which is just the most delightful turn of phrase. It was often given to young babies, especially earlier in the 19th century, although this was later discouraged as an unnecessary and occasionally dangerous thing to do (there are several accounts of babies or young children dying as a result of the wrongful administration of castor oil, usually due to reactions with other substances). It wasn’t particularly dangerous for adults, unless there were other health complications, although there were some cases of people dying after mistaking acid or caustic disinfectants like Lysol for castor oil (yikes).
A very very high number of the articles and advertisements for castor oil were concerned with the taste. Some described it as repulsive, some as sickening. One writer even used the phrase “the smooth, mucilaginous, euphorbiaceous, nauseous castor oil” which manages to both be technically accurate (translated as ‘sticky nausea inducing oil from the Euphorbiaciae taxa of plants’) and convey an almost onomatopoeic sense of revulsion. Needless to say, there are numerous recommendations on how to disguise the taste, both for yourself and any unsuspecting victims (usually children) you might have.
Among the recommended ways of hiding the taste of castor oil are: mixing it with scrambled eggs; ‘floating’ it on milk; putting it in lemonade; orange juice or other citrus flavours; hiding it in candy (this seems particularly cruel); and mixing it with cocoa to form ‘castor oil chocolate’ (which sounds awful, to be honest). The chocolate is particularly interesting, thanks to one account of a court case in Christchurch in which a local chemist was prosecuted for selling a product labelled castor oil chocolate that actually contained mostly phenolpthalen, a weak acid also used as a laxative. So, yeah, laxative chocolates. Who knew. Also still a thing, apparently.
Apparently, a lot of these methods didn’t actually do a whole lot to disguise the taste of the oil. Neither did the ‘tasteless’ castor oils advertised actually manage to do what they claimed. Castor oil continued to taste bad enough that the taking of it was considered a punishment, especially by children. In fact, it was administered as a punishment, and this is where it gets interesting. And political. And a bit sinister. Because castor oil wasn’t just given as a punishment to school children (which is bad enough, when you think about the laxative properties…) but, particularly during the 20th century, was also forcibly given or used as a threat against adults – specifically and most commonly by fascists.
The first mention I found of this was a notice in the newspaper stating that several men had been imprisoned for “administering castor oil to communists,” which seemed a bit weird but kind of funny. Then I read some more and, yeah, not so funny. Castor oil was used by the Fascisti in 1920s and 1930s Italy to punish dissenters, subversives and enemies of fascism, basically by holding them down and forcing them to suffer from uncontrollable diarrhoea that could last for days. It served the purpose of exerting control over individuals, humiliating them and immobilising them, or at least restricting their movement (Strange History 2014). “Castor oil cudgels” became so synonymous with Mussolini and the Italian fascists that George Bernard Shaw had to write a defense of fascism in 1937 to explicitly state that the success of the ideology wasn’t just due to the use of castor oil.
The use of castor oil in this way was adopted by other extremist political groups during the first half of the 20th century. The Nazis used it as a threat against newspaper editors who might consider attacking them in print; royalists in France used it in combination with tar to attack anti-royalist deputies; fascists in England used in an assault on a journalist; secret police in Cuba allegedly forced newspaper staff to drink it at gunpoint in 1934 to “forestall revolutionary outbreak” and it was used by the rebels in Spain in the late 1930s. It was, as it turns out, an exceedingly common tool of political punishment.
You can actually sort of see the beginnings of the use of castor oil in this way during the earlier 19th century: although not explicitly used as it was in the 20th century, it’s mentioned occasionally as a kind of social purgative, playing on the perceived purgative and laxative qualities of the product and applying them to society or sub-sets of society in general. One account talks about administering castor oil to the entire Department of Public Works, another of using it to “sweep away the all highly paid noodles and useless sinecurists” in the Railway Department. Another example attempted to solve the drunk ‘problem’ in America by offering drunkards a choice of castor oil or gaol (which kind of seems like a non-choice to me, but I guess not). The same principle was applied in Italy again during the 1920s, where it was less of a choice and more of a ‘if we catch you drunk, we will forcibly feed you castor oil to sober you up, totally for the good of society.’
Now, there’s no evidence to suggest that the castor oil bottles we find in Christchurch were used for anything outside their health or mechanical-related functions, but it does make you think about a whole field of things our archaeological experience doesn’t usually touch on. I spent a while wondering if the use of castor oil as a political punishment was equivalent to the New Zealand trend of throwing random things at politicians, but I don’t think it is. It’s far more insidious than that, far too related to those characteristics of ‘purging’ – and not just because of the association with fascism and the abuses of Mussolini and Hitler. It’s the subversion of a household product – of the function of a household product – into a tool for social oppression and control. Proof that anything can become an instrument of torture (not to put too fine a word on it) if you add enough violence and a dash of radical ideology. It’s been over half a century since this particular form of that was popular, but don’t tell me that the thought’s not still a bit terrifying.
(I tried to think of a way to end this on a lighter note and get us back to the chocolate flavoured drugs and ‘substance of horny character’, but I couldn’t figure it out. Sorry. Blame fascism.)
Strange History, 2014. Mussolini’s Secret Weapon: Castor Oil. In Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog. [online] Available at: www.strangehistory.net.
Tiso, G., 2014. Making real a fascist puppet. In Overland. [online] Available at: www.overland.org.au.