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We know of Absorbine Jr.; whatever became of Absorbine Sr.? Are there any other family members of which we should be aware?

--Donarita and Wally, via the Internet

You think you have total command of the world's knowledge. Then something like this comes in and you realize: I have barely scratched the freaking surface. But hey, that's why we've got telephones. We called up W.F. Young, Inc., maker of Absorbine Jr., and asked what the deal was with Absorbine Sr. The following amazing tale emerged.

The Absorbine family of health care products was the brainchild of Wilbur Fenelon Young of Connecticut. In 1892, after eight years selling pianos, he decided to go into the business of making liniment. You may think: here's a guy who moved a few too many pianos. But Young didn't intend the liniment for himself. His first product was meant for horses. It was called Absorbine Veterinary Liniment--Absorbine Sr. to you.

The other topical pain remedies of the day were harsh or blistering, the prevailing medical theory apparently being that it couldn't be any good for you unless it felt bad. Young's revolutionary concept: a pain reliever that relieves pain! He mixed up the first batch of herbs and "essential oils" in a tub in his farmhouse kitchen. Absorbine "would help keep a horse from going lame while gently reducing the swelling and stiffness," the company says today. It caught on with farmers, some of whom were soon struck with the thought: if it works on horses, why not me? Sure enough, they found if they rubbed the stuff on their own aching muscles, it would ease pain and reduce swelling and discomfort. Eventually Young heard about this, and in 1903 he developed a version of his product for humans that he called Absorbine Jr. Antiseptic Liniment.

Demand for Absorbine liniment soon outstripped the capacity of Young's small factory. To finance a move, he went to his father, Charles, and asked for a loan of $500. Charles, not one of your great visionaries, thought Wilbur had been silly to abandon the respectable life of a piano salesman for a career in liniment. He did not, however, tell his son to forget the whole thing. Instead, moved by some twisted impulse that makes you think Oedipus was right, he made the loan contingent on Wilbur signing his advertising "Wilbur F. Young, P.D.F.," which stood for "Pa's Darn Fool." And you thought your old man was weird.

Absorbine products went on to become an essential component of American life and remain so today. Among its many other claims to fame, W.F. Young coined the term "athlete's foot" in the 1930s. Today a fifth generation of Youngs continues to sell Absorbine liniment as well as "a host of other equine and human products." Not that I have anything specifically in mind, but I hope they don't get 'em mixed up.

Laundry balls: taking folks to the cleaners?

Got two interesting notes on laundry balls, the gimmicks you put in your washing machine that supposedly eliminate the need for detergent. (As reported July 25, our tests and those of others detected little or no difference between clothes washed with laundry balls versus those washed in plain water.)

The first note, from David Harris, reported his satisfaction with the Laundry Solution, a laundry ball sold by TradeNet. "It has performed well even on the smelly dog blankets we keep on the furniture to ward off hair and dirt from a greasy Airedale," he writes. "Without the detergent residue, cottons are noticeably fluffier without using softener or drier sheets (great for towels)." He goes on to tout the company that developed the Laundry Solution for TradeNet, American Technologies Group, which "created a coolant that is both safe and 20 percent more efficient than Freon, and is working on a particle beam device to neutralize nuclear waste." Laundry balls and particle beams! Are these guys brilliant or what?

Another reader sent us newspaper articles reporting that the Utah state division of consumer protection had sent a couple of TradeNet's laundry balls out for tests and found that they contained dyed water, not crystal technology as claimed. A TradeNet spokesman says the state was testing an "earlier model." Gosh, David, I guess you better send 'em yours.

One more thing. I said Amway sells ceramic washing disks (same idea as laundry balls). Amway has clarified that while the product appeared in a July 1997 catalog, the company decided not to sell the thing after tests showed it had "no measurable impact on overall cleaning." Figured you'd want to know.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.

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