Bex and similar over- the-counter drugs were at the height of their popularity in Australia during the 1950s and 60s. Claimed as a cure for all manner of complaints, they became a ‘pick-me-up’ for bored, frustrated housewives before the Women’s Liberation movement and the contraceptive pill changed the fabric of society.
It wasn’t only housewives who came to rely on Bex. Joan Hunt remembers that when she was 14 she started work in a shoe factory. One of her duties was to take morning tea and lunch orders for her fellow workers. Throughout the factory those orders included 1d Bex and 2d Vincent’s powders and tablets. (Vincent’s was a similar product.)
The active ingredients were Aspirin, Phenacetin and Codeine or Caffeine, hence the generic name A.P.C.
Production of Bex powders and tablets began in the 1920s. The following advertisement appeared in newspapers in 1931;
‘Not a narcotic nor is it injurious in any way.’ ……. If only that had been true!
We have Dr Priscilla Kincaid-Smith to thank for discovering that the drugs were highly addictive, and that excessive use of them had led to a generation of women in particular suffering from chronic kidney disease.
I don’t remember Bex as a significant presence in my own home during those post-war decades. I suspect my farmer’s wife mother was just too busy to be bored.
The pills and powders were spruiked in all the popular women’s magazines. It was rare that a male featured in an advertisement.
With the advent of television the benefits of Bex and Vincent’s pills and powders were even more widely advertised. Watch these Commercials from the 1960s. The elderly lawn bowlers in the first advert were a rare example of men being targetted.
In the 1970s the new owner of a house at Donald in the Wimmera was restoring the garden and found over 400 empty Bex bottles.
BEX – AUSSIE CULTURAL ICON
On September 18 1965 the comedy revue ‘A Cup of Tea, a Bex, and a God Lie Down’ opened at Sydney’s Philip Street Theatre. It was performed over 250 times in an extended run.
That advertising slogan for Bex remains part of the lexicon. In September 2011 Australia’s Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd was touted as being about to challenge the leadership of Julia Gillard and famously said; ‘I support the Prime Minister and I am a member of her Cabinet. I just think it would be a good idea if everyone had a cup of tea, a Bex, and a long lie down.’ He never did get his Aussie colloquialisms quite right. And the public barely had time to boil the kettle or take a nap before he did indeed mount a challenge.
THE A.P.C. OF MURDER
I suppose it was inevitable that the ubiquitous powders would be put to a more sinister use. In 1939 there was a truly awful case in Queensland. A spurned lover put a strychnine filled powder in his ex-girlfriend’s purse. One morning she innocently gave it to her uncle with a cup of tea. Her shocked, would-be killer confessed; ‘I didn’t mean to kill Uncle William, it was meant for you’.
Strychnine was widely available and regularly used in those days for the control of rats and rabbits. It was fast acting, and the required fatal dose for a human was quite small. Death resulted from convulsions, and paralysis leading to asphyxia.
In December 1941 a Sydney woman died after her killer put free samples of Bex in letter boxes along her street. She was the intended target, and her three samples contained strychnine. The murderer knew she was a habitual user, and his evil plan worked like a charm. The poor woman took a powder straight away, in case she got a headache later on.
By the 1970s the Bex company was on the slippery slide to extinction.
TROUBLE AT MILL
The ‘Dragon Lady’ insisted that the mainly migrant workers spoke only English amongst themselves, which did not go down well. The women picketed the Crown Street factory.
Combined with the health problems associated with A.P.C preparations, the glory days were over. The product was banned in 1977.
All things considered, saying goodbye to Bex was very positive. Mind you, the older I get the more a cup of tea and a good lie down are necessary for my wellbeing.