The Alka-Seltzer story began in the winter of 1928, when Hub Beardsley, president of the Dr. Miles Laboratories, visited the offices of a local newspaper in a small town in Indiana called Elkhart.
There was a severe flu epidemic that year. Many of Beardsley’s own employees were out sick. But Beardsley learned that no one on the newspaper’s staff had missed a day of work as the result of influenza. The paper’s editor explained that at the first hint of a cold symptom, he dosed staff members with a combination of aspirin and baking soda. Beardsley was impressed. Both medications were ancient, but their combination was novel. Since his laboratories specialised in home-medicine-chest remedies, he decided to test the formula. He asked his chief chemist, Maurice Treneer, to devise an attractive new tablet. Of course, what Treneer created—the pill that went “plop, plop, fizz, fizz” —was more novel than the combination of aspirin and baking soda, and the gimmick was instrumental in popularising the product.
Beardsley took a supply of the experimental tablets with him on a Mediterranean cruise. His wife reported that they cured her headaches. Beardsley himself found they soothed the ravages of excessive shipboard dining and drinking. And fellow passengers who tried the tablets claimed they cured seasickness. The fizzing tablet, which prompted a hung-over W . C. Fields to joke, “Can’t anyone do something about that racket!” slumped in 1931, during the Depression. Radio promotion was heavy. But Alka-Seltzer’s sales really skyrocketed in 1933, when Americans emerged parched from the dry spell of Prohibition.
Ironically, one of Alka-Seltzer’s original two ingredients, aspirin, is a strong stomach irritant for many people. This awareness caused Miles Laboratories to introduce an aspirin-free tablet called Alka-2 Antacid in the mid-1970s. Today a wide variety of non-sodium, non-aspirin antacids neutralise stomach acid. A glance at the packaging will reveal that the modern components are aluminum, calcium, bismuth, magnesium, and phosphates, and the one ancient ingredient is dried milk solids.