A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

How come we never hear about Absorbine Sr.?

September 26, 1997

Dear Cecil:

We know of Absorbine Jr.; whatever became of Absorbine Sr.? Are there any other family members of which we should be aware?

Cecil replies:

You say there are eight million stories in the Naked City? Pshaw. For real drama, walk down the aisles of the supermarket. We called up W. F. Young, Inc., maker of Absorbine Jr., and asked what the deal was with Absorbine Sr. The remarkable tale below emerged.

The Absorbine family of health care products was the brainchild of Wilbur Fenelon Young of Connecticut. In 1892, after eight years selling pianos, he decided to go into the business of making liniment. You may think: here's a guy who moved a few too many pianos. Not at all. Young's product was meant for horses, not people. It was called Absorbine Veterinary Liniment — Absorbine Sr. to you.

The other topical pain remedies of the day were harsh or blistering, the prevailing medical theory apparently being that it couldn't be good for you unless it felt bad. Young's revolutionary concept: a pain reliever that relieved pain! He mixed up the first batch of herbs and "essential oils" in a tub in his farmhouse kitchen. Absorbine "would help keep a horse from going lame while gently reducing the swelling and stiffness," the company says today. It caught on with farmers, some of whom were soon struck with the thought: if it works on horses, why not me? Sure enough, they found if they rubbed the stuff on their own aching muscles, it would ease pain and reduce swelling and discomfort. Eventually Young heard about this, and in 1903 he developed a version of his product for humans that he called Absorbine Jr. Antiseptic Liniment.

Demand for Absorbine liniment soon outstripped the capacity of Young's small factory. To finance a move, he went to his father, Charles, and asked for a loan of $500. Charles, not one of your great visionaries, thought Wilbur had been silly to abandon the respectable life of a piano salesman for a career in liniment. He did not, however, tell his son to forget the whole thing. Instead, acting on some twisted impulse that makes you think Oedipus was right, he made the loan contingent on Wilbur signing his advertising "Wilbur F. Young, P. D. F.," which stood for "Pa's Darn Fool." And you thought your old man was weird.

Absorbine products went on to become an essential component of American life and remain so today. Among its many other claims to fame, W. F. Young coined the term "athlete's foot" in the 1930s. Today a fifth generation of Youngs continues to sell Absorbine liniment as well as "a host of other equine and human products." Not that I have anything specifically in mind, but I hope they don't get 'em mixed up.

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