Despite the name, it was a hugely successful product, manufactured here in Memphis by the Plough Chemical Company (better known today as Schering-Plough). Though company records are a bit vague, I believe you could still find Penetro on drug-store shelves as late as the 1950s.
I discovered this old booklet tucked away in the Lauderdale Library, and I have to admit I like the way the product is marketed. Just look at that nice old woman! "Grandma created it," says the booklet, and "medical science perfected it." As a result, "NOW MILLIONS USE IT." And wouldn't you, if Grandma said it was good for you?
So what did they use it for, exactly? Well, just about anything. The makers of Penetro claimed it could cure "sprains, bronchial irritation, cuts and scratches, tired and sore muscles, head cold discomfort, superficial burns and scalds, irritated feet, sunburn, bruises, and abrasions."
Why, it could even treat frostbite!
The secret ingredient behind this miracle product? Mutton suet. Yes, that's right — globs of FAT extracted from SHEEP. Hard to believe (downright impossible, I'd say), but Plough claimed this "is one of the earliest of all home remedies. Your grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great-grandmother placed their faith in mutton suet."
Really? I'm pretty sure my mother's family was all Methodists, and if they had any faith in mutton suet, they never mentioned it around me. Is it in the Bible somewhere?
Anyway, the booklet explains, "Now after generations of service, mutton suet has been taken by modern medical science and combined with menthol, camphor, methyl salicylate, turpentine, oil of pine, and thymol to create stainless, snow-white PENETRO."
First of all, I wonder how much mutton suet is left after they've blended in all this other stuff, including turpentine! And second, I wonder how much work Penetro actually does. After all, for headaches, the booklet recommends that you rub the product into your temples and then "lie down and remain quiet," which is a pretty good cure for a headache — without all that mutton suet.
According to the old booklet shown here, "Penetro occupied an enviable position in the medicine cabinets of hundreds of homes." Well, not anymore it doesn't.
And I wonder: Was that woman on the box really the grandma who invented this stuff? There's something fishy about this ...