Delivering medicine through the skin seems like the latest cutting-edge innovation, but it’s actually very old. In fact, some of the first Johnson & Johnson products delivered medications in that way over 100 years ago: medicated plasters. Medicated plasters were a way for people to apply a treatment directly to an affected area of the body. They were made up of an India rubber base impregnated with a variety of compounds that delivered pain relief and a variety of medicines.
These plasters had a fabric backing and were covered with crinoline (a type of thin fabric), which was peeled off to reveal an adhesive surface that would stick the plaster directly onto the skin. During the plaster manufacturing process, the India rubber was dissolved and mixed with the medication, and then spread onto the fabric backing to dry. Popular plasters contained ingredients like belladonna, mustard seed (which provided heat to injured areas), capsicum (the active ingredient in hot peppers, which was used to relieve muscle pain), zinc oxide, quinine, opium and more. Most plasters were designed to relieve minor aches and pains, or to provide heat to an injured area, much in the way heating pads are used today.
Bicyclist Wearing Kidney Plaster
Robert Wood Johnson the first learned how to make medicated plasters as a teenager during his apprenticeship at Wood & Tittamer in Poughkeepsie, New York. According to the book Robert Wood Johnson: The Gentleman Rebel, plaster making was difficult and frustrating work, and Johnson stated: “‘Probably no other branch of the pharmaceutical art has been the occasion of so much toil, anxiety and failure and discouragement before any measure of success was met.’” As a further illustration of his frustration, Johnson added that during the plaster-making process,“‘Expressive expletives could not be restrained.’” (RWJ: The Gentleman Rebel, p. 13). During his tenure at Seabury & Johnson, Robert Wood Johnson the first worked long hours with raw materials trying to perfect the company’s plasters. His younger brother James Wood Johnson, who joined Seabury & Johnson in 1878, used his engineering knowledge to develop plaster-making machinery, a skill he took to the company he formed, Johnson & Johnson, in 1886.
19th Century Pharmacy (with plaster boxes on counter)
Medicated plasters were sold in pharmacies, which were the main outlets for medical and consumer health care products in the 19th century. The packages were often very colorful to make them stand out from the competition, as this package of Dr. Grosvenor’s Bellcapsic Plasters shows.
When customers complained that some plasters irritated their skin, the Company's Scientific Director Fred Kilmer sent them a small container of talc to soothe the irritated area. It was discovered by consumers that the talc was helpful in soothing diaper rash. They told the Company about their discovery, leading to the birth of JOHNSON’S® Baby Powder in 1893.