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Here are your hints:

– 100 years ago

– Cold and flu season

– Epidemics

– Bugs

– Funeral homes

– Outhouses

Answer:

Behold the Formacone disinfectant and (peee-yoooo!) deodorizer.

Very soon the windows must be closed, the steam heat turned on, and winter coughs, colds, grippe, catarrh, and other respiratory or germ diseases will prevail unless the women of Indianapolis remember to get and use the famous Formacone air purifier.” — Indianapolis Star advertisement October 1913

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The Formacone was a device invented to release formalin, a form of formaldehyde, into the air for the purpose of disinfection… and Formacone did its job most effectively, killing all manner of germs.

Formaldehyde is a naturally-occurring substance (chemical formula CH2O) — a colorless gas with a strong odor.  We make it in our bodies and it occurs naturally in the air that we breathe. Plants and animals also produce formaldehyde. Some vegetables, including Brussels sprouts and cabbage, emit it when they are cooked. However, it wasn’t until 1867 that German chemist August Willhelm von Hofmann discovered formaldehyde’s ability to preserve things. Eventually it became understood that formaldehyde’s talent for preservation was linked to it’s power to kill bacteria, arresting the decomposition process. This discovery eventually led scientists to the conclusion that it could also be used in the household as disinfectant, fumigant, cleanser, medication, bug killer and, rather humorously, a deodorizer (once heavily laced with pine oil).

The Formacone Company, located in New York, Newark, and Indianapolis, capitalized on this new found-technology in a time when the threat from polio, Spanish flu, and cholera were very real in our region. The company operated in Indianapolis from 1910 to 1914 in two locations: the Hume Mansur Building and the Arcade Building. Indianapolis newspapers featured almost-daily ads for Formacone products during these years.

In the early 20th Century, undertakers used formaldehyde in embalming the dearly-departed and also employed Formacone products in their mortuaries (either in the handy wall dispenser or as a fumigant). Hospitals used Formacone to sterilize operating and patient rooms. Health departments supported its use in private homes during cold and flu seasons. Druggists dispensed Formacone as a cleanser, pesticide and even a cough syrup, of sorts.

While the practice of disinfection certainly improved the lives of thousands, the use and handling of chemicals was often naively haphazard. Eventually, deaths and injuries were linked to formalin and safer products were developed for household use.

Fortunately, as a medication, formaldehyde has gone the way of opium, cocaine, and eye of newt.

Today,  the CDC offers strict guidelines on formalin/formaldehyde safety. The substance, now found in everything from plastic to adhesives, is recognized as highly toxic and even carcinogenic. (Which begs the question: “Why haven’t Brussels sprouts been outlawed, yet?”)

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Do you remember Formacone?

What crazy things did your ancestors do to ward-off illness?

Share your memories in the comment box below.

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