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Bile Beans – Precursor to Lifestyle Drugs


Ghost Sign
Bile Beans
Lord Mayor’s Walk, York UK
Photo by Author.
All Rights Reserved

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.

biles beans.8287574955_340369531e_z
Bile Beans sharing the display with Sloan’s Liniment, Caster Oil, & other miracle cures. Photo by Foomandoonia, Flicker Creative Commons

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.

Bile Beans on display with biscuits, a back cure, Iodine Ointment, Walker’s Foot Powder & the still popular
Vick’s Vapour Rub.
Photo by quimbly,
Flicker Creative Commons

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.

Ghost Signs. Bile Beans, York.

The Quack Doctor. Charles Forde’s Bile Beans for Biliousness.

The Quack Doctor. Bile Beans, Part 2.


Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

 Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.


  1. Include Damaroids in your survey, widely advertised in Charing Cross Road in the 1930s. Supposedly for treating male impotence, before the invention of viagra. Reputedly contained Spanish fly which irritated the urethra.


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