The Story Behind “More ___ Than Carter’s Got Liver Pills”

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Carter’s Little Liver Pills. PHOTO: jennandjon

Growing up in the home of a displaced West Virginian, I was privy to a litany of maxims which my friends and peers never had the good fortune of knowing.

I remember like yesterday the time in fourth grade when I casually announced to my classmates that I was so mad I could “thread a sewing machine – and it running.”

My proclamation was immediately met with a volley of hysterical laughter from everyone ranging from the teacher on down to the oddly quiet girl who sat in the back of the class and never spoke to anyone – looking back, it still makes my ears turn red with embarrassment to think that I actually “cast my pearls before the swine” in such a manner.

I remember well the feeling of nervous confusion which immediately swept over my body that day as I struggled to understand why that saying brought my classmates such amusement – to me it was a common phrase, one that I had heard my father nonchalantly utter on a near-weekly basis throughout the entirety of my young life.

As I grew older, it didn’t take me very long to realize that the countless number of similes and proverbs my father could quote better than the “Romans Road” were a rarity to our host-community. As a teenager, I would cringe each time I would hear him say “shaking like a cat crapping peach seeds” or proclaim that he had worked more hours that week than some mysterious man named Carter had liver pills.

While in college, I thought that I had finally cracked the mysterious saying and at last unlocked who this cryptic Carter feller with all the liver ailments actually was – it had to have been Billy Carter.

Surely you remember Billy, President Jimmy Carter’s younger brother? You remember, the guy who once urinated on an airport runway… in full view of the press and dignitaries? The guy who caused the 39th President of the United States more PR problems than… I’ll spare you the pun!

After all, Billy Carter was the proud promoter of Billy Beer, so surely, of all people named Carter, he had to have had the most liver pills.

So for the next decade, each time I would hear my Dad declare that some woman had more wrinkles than Carter had liver pills, just after announcing that she could probably land a job “hainting houses,” I would silently pat myself on the back, glorifying in my own intellect for finally solving this terrible riddle.

Sadly, I was recently forced into the heartbreaking realization that I did not know what I thought I knew when it comes to Appalachian etymology.  Reading a yellow and tattered newspaper from the 1800s earlier this week, my jaw nearly dropped to the ground when I saw of all things, an advertisement for “Carter’s Little Liver Pills.”  To steal an expression my grandmother would often use, “Why you could have knocked me over with a feather.”

Turns out, long before Mr. Billy Carter ever tasted his first drop of alcohol, another Carter had liver pills.

The real Carter was a man from Erie, Pennsylvania, named Samuel J. Carter. In 1868, he began peddling a pill he said could cure any type of stomach sickness, marketing them as “Carter’s Little Liver Pills.”

Within a generation, the pills were being touted to cure, everything from headaches to constipation and indigestion.

In 2000, after racking up nearly 78% of the vote against Republican challenger David T. Gallaher, U.S. Senator Robert Byrd announced to jubilant supporters that “West Virginia has always had four friends, God Almighty, Sears Roebuck, Carter’s Liver Pills and Robert C. Byrd.”

So take pride West Virginia. We’ve got more things going for us than Carter’s got liver pills!

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3 COMMENTS

  1. my mom said that too, and she was born in Virginia. She said a whole host of those sayings, including hotter than blue blazes, get happy in the same pants you got mad in, and that kind of meanness could shame the devil.

  2. I too can relate to your many sayings growning up. Although some of them I haven’t found the meaning or their origin.
    But each time, I use a phrase or saying brings back precious memories of my Mom, Dad, and Grandparents and relatives that have died and left me to ponder on these or to find the origin as you finally did. Yes, our house had Carter’s Little Liver Pills. I enjoyed your article and so glad you cracked the mystery behind your Father’s riddle.
    Yes, I do recall Billy Carter’s shenanigans!

  3. Yes, my Mamaw had the liver pill expression and a lot of others that I always wondered if they were just hers or did other people use them. When ingot restless she would tell me I was like a fart on a hot griddle. I always tried to visualize what she said. Anyone else ever head that one. We moved from WV to VA at the beginning of the exit from the coal fields. There were so many times I experienced that embarrassment when I would say something that was normal to me and the whole class would laugh.

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