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Bile Beans Ghost Sign
The intriguing advertisement for "Bile Beans" is a 'ghost sign' on the side wall of a house at the junction of Lord Mayor's Walk and Monkgate, near Monk Bar.
It has been a York landmark for decades and its repainting in 2012 sparked both local and national controversy. However, the project had the support of York Civic Trust and, following an appeal in York's local newspaper, the repainting costs were met by public donations.
'Bile beans' were extremely popular (but foul-smelling) black gelatinous pills originally marketed as a cure for biliousness (indigestion) - hence the name. The beans were introduced to the UK in 1899 and, despite a lack of scientific proof to support the claimed health benefits, sales increased significantly throughout the first half of the 20th century. According to an entry in the British Medical Journal dated December 26th 1903, the ingredients in this 'patent medicine' at that time included rhubarb and cascara (both of which are plant extracts with laxative properties), licorice and menthol (for flavouring, although licorice may also have laxative properties) and gelatin (to bind it all together). The black colour was apparently provided by adding ground-up charcoal powder. The recipe evolved over time and, by the 1940s, the ingredients included aloin (another laxative, later found to have undesirable side-effects), saponis (soap), glucose (as a sweetener) and a variety of spices including ginger, capsicum and cardamom.
As time went, on the list of declared 'benefits' was unscrupulously expanded to include muscle-toning and weight-loss. One 1940s advert even claimed that taking two beans at bedtime would let you "slim while you sleep". The advertisement in York expands on these 'benefits by making the following claims:
HEALTHY BRIGHT-EYED AND SLIM
The product was taken off the market in the 1980s, but the sign remains to promote the amazing 'benefits' of this little black 'bean'.