Crossing the Lord Mayor’s Walk in York (UK), I could not help but notice the prescriptive sign above. The first time I saw it, I was running late and scampered across the street on my way to St. John’s University. The sign greeted me daily for about a week. On more leisurely mornings, I wondered what the heck Bile Beans were, and whether they could really keep me “healthy, bright-eyed & slim.”
Before you get excited, I must reveal that Bile Beans are no longer available, which is why this iconic advertisement is called a ‘ghost sign.’ It is a York landmark, recently repainted by the York Civic Trust at a cost of £1600.
If you don’t want to know more about Bile Beans, it’s time to stop reading.
In an age of patent medicine, Bile Beans were touted as a cure-all for just about anything related to digestion or general health. The small, black, gelatin coated beans could be used with alacrity for conditions of biliousness, cirrhosis and other liver complaints, blackheads, all female complaints, indigestion, constipation, rheumatism, sciatica, lumbago, gout, general debility, dyspepsia, headache, insomnia, and piles. During the influenza epidemic of 1899, Bile’s Beans were said to alleviate symptoms and speed recovery.
WOW! What’s in those beans?
A primary ingredient was aloin, an aloe extract with laxative properties. So, the claim that Bile Beans cured constipation is probably true. In May 2002 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ruled that aloe laxatives are not considered safe, due to various unpleasant side effects. Other ingredients were cardamom, peppermint oil, and wheat flour. Well, at least the spices made the beans pleasant tasting. Bile Beans could still be purchased in the 1980s.
Do you have any favorite “miracle cures” from yesteryear – a secret recipe for “hair of the dog”? Leave a comment.
Kate Liptrot. “York’s iconic Bile Beans sign gets facelift.” The Press. Nov. 5, 2012. http://www.yorkpress.co.uk/news/10027487.York_s_iconic_Bile_Beans_sign_gets_facelift/
Ghost Signs. Bile Beans, York. http://www.ghostsigns.co.uk/2013/06/bile-beans-york-correction-and-update.html
The Quack Doctor. Charles Forde’s Bile Beans for Biliousness. http://thequackdoctor.com/index.php/charles-fordes-bile-beans-for-biliousness/
The Quack Doctor. Bile Beans, Part 2. http://thequackdoctor.com/index.php/bile-beans-part-2/
Sandra Wagner-Wright is the author of Two Coins: A Biographical Novel and Rama's Labyrinth. Both books are available in digital and print editions at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, and Kobo. Rama’s Labyrinth and Two Coins are available as audiobooks.
Sandra blogs weekly about topics related to her travels, writing life, and the incongruities of life in general.