Splinters, scarred knees and M&M’s oh my!

Published 5:27 pm Monday, March 28, 2022

I was recently removing a splinter from my finger and in the process, my memory transported me back to a time when I learned two things could be called the same thing. I was five and I had fallen out of the little red Radio Flyer wagon my sister Lena was pulling. The wagon rolled over a large rock, and I came tumbling out on my hand, hitting a piece of wood, and a large splinter sunk down in my hand. I ran into the house yelling to my mom about how much it hurt.  My grandmother took one look at the splinter and told Mama she was going to the store to buy M&M’s.

I immediately stopped crying because I knew I was getting a treat.  My favorite candy was Peanut M&M’s. At that time, they were not as colorful as they are today.  They came in a small black bag, same size as the bag today, but back then the bag was black with white writing on it.  Today the bag is yellow with brown writing.  And, unlike today, the M&M’s back then came in only one color, tan, but they were so good.

I let Mama get the splinter out with little resistance because I was looking for my M&M’s that I just knew my grandmother had gone to the store to buy for me. I went out on the front porch and sat in the swing and waited for her to come back.

She returned and went straight into the house with a little brown bag in her hand. Mama called me into the kitchen and to my horror I saw what my grandmother called M&M’s. It wasn’t candy!   It was two small bottles; one was a bottle of Mercurochrome and the other one was a bottle of Merthiolate.

If you have ever had an experience with them, you already know. If you don’t know, you have been spared.  Both were used to treat skin injuries and left an almost indelible red stain on your skin. I hated both. Mercurochrome was a brand name for Merbromin which was a combination of mercury and bromine and it burned when applied.

Merthiolate, a brand name for Thimerosal, was a mixture of mercury and sodium with alcohol, and also stung when applied. You could always tell when kids got scrapes or cuts because those wounds were painted flame red.  I think both were banned in the early 1990’s by the USDA because of the mercury scare in foods and medicines.  Those little bottles meant torture to me.

My grandmother called Lena and I to the porch and told us she had more M&M’s.   She pulled out two bags of Peanut M&M’s from her apron pocket and told us she liked them too because when her son Leroy was in the Army, M&M candies were a big treat.

He said the Army liked the candies because when the soldiers were stationed in really warm climates, the candies lived up to their famous slogan. “They melted in your mouth, not in your hand.”

My friends and I many decades later often talk about Mercurochrome and Merthiolate, and how that red dye-looking first aid treatment was a badge of survival of many childhood scrapes and scarred knees.  But for me, Peanut M&M’s made the medical M&M’s tolerable. I still love them!

Leesa Jones is a Washington native and the co-founder and co-executive director of the Washington Waterfront Underground Railroad Museum.