A favorite prank of youngsters of the early 1950s was to call someone on the telephone and ask for Arthur. Ignoring their confused response, the caller would say, “When Arthur Itus (arthritis) comes in, tell him that Hattie call(ed) (Hadacol).”
This often repeated gag referred to a popular foul tasting brown-colored “tonic,” marketed under the name Hadacol and available in stores from the 1940s to the mid 1950s. I remember lying on the floor of our apartment living room listening to my favorite radio programs and routinely hearing a Hadacol commercial. I had no clue as to its significance.
This trendy “medicinal” product was marketed in a thin black eight-ounce bottle with a red and yellow label, being advertised as a dietary supplement and selling for about a dollar a bottle. The label displayed five vitamins and four minerals, blended in a mixture of honey and … 12% alcohol, the latter being added “as a preservative.” The minimum recommended daily dosage was four tablespoons. My mom obviously understood the factual value of the product. While Castor Oil graced my lips many times during my youth, not one bottle of Hadacol ever made its way there.
The founder of this popular concoction was Dudley J. LeBlanc, a colorful Louisiana Senator and businessman. He made millions selling his "cure-all elixir to the masses.” Legend has it that when asked why he called it Hadacol, LeBlanc responded, "Well, I hadda call it something."
Whatever ailments people had, Hadacol was presumed to cure it: high blood pressure, ulcers, strokes, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, pneumonia, anemia, cancer, epilepsy, gall stones, heart trouble and hay fever ... to name a few. The company began paying people for testimonials that showed health benefits resulting from use of the product, some responses boarding on the ridiculous.
Many users were quite serious about what they were saying; others made exaggerated claims in hopes of being compensated. Such corny solicitations amused the masses, making Hadacol commercials quite popular. People began fabricating their own humorous testimonials and sharing with one another: “I used to suffer terribly from irregularity. After just two bottles of Hadacol, I now make frequent trips down that narrow path to the outhouse, even when I don’t need to do so.”
Many patrons overlooked the high alcoholic content of the product in hopes of receiving happiness in a bottle, receiving instead, a pricey placebic hoax. Northerners would call attention to the fact that people making these bizarre allegations were typically from south of the Mason and Dixon Line.
The enterprising Leblanc later formed his “Hadacol Caravan” and traveled across the south, delivering “medicine show” type entertainment and selling an abundance of Hadacol. His “caravan” included such celebrities as Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, Mickey Rooney, Dorothy Lamour, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Judy Garland, Groucho Marx, Jimmy Cagney, Harry Houdini and Carmen Miranda.
In 1949, Hadacol ironically sponsored radio’s “The Health and Happiness Show,” starring the legendary Hank Williams, Sr. The medicine shows of yesteryear have long passed from the scene, mainly due to today’s watchdog efforts of the Food and Drug Agency’s “Truth in Advertising.”
The childish telephone pranks of a half-century ago are no longer in vogue with today’s youngsters. Arthur Itus is still alive and well, but Hattie doesn’t call him anymore.