The History Of Carter's Little Pills

Ever heard someone say, "More than Carter has little pills?" Here's the story.

Carter's Little Pills Ad A page from the Illustrated London News advertising Carter's Little Liver Pills, 12th September 1903.
Photo: Hulton Archive / Stringer / Getty Images

They have more money than Carter has little pills. Wait, what? If you've been trying to explain the phrase "more than Carter has little pills" to a confused bystander, or if you've been on the other side trying to find answers to an expression that doesn't make sense to you, let us help. This phrase is a saying that many Southerners know well, which is why we wanted to get to the bottom by sharing the story of Carter and his little pills.

The Origin of the Saying

We'll get this part out of the way: The saying has nothing to do with former President Jimmy Carter. Not even a little bit. Carter's little pills began as Carter's Little Liver Pills, a patented medicine developed in 1868 by Erie, Pennsylvania's Samuel J. Carter.

Carter's Little Liver Pills were well-known because of its advertising. The advertising was so widespread that it seemed Carter had an endless supply of pills—which is why the saying originated as "more than Carter has little liver pills."

Carter's Little Pills Ad "Advertisement for Carter's 'Little Liver Pills,' 1887. Described as 'purely vegetable,' the ad promises 'Sick Headache Positively Cured by these Little Pills. They also relieve Distress from Dyspepsia, Indigestion and Hearty Eating.'"
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Advertising Carter's Little Pills

Carter's Products of New York advertised the pills throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The pills were marketed in newspapers and on cards as a potential cure-all. Carter's claimed the pills would ease various ailments, including headaches, digestive issues, and so-called torpid liver. They were widespread in American households and also found internationally.

Carter's Little Liver Pills was a medicine billed as something to aid bile flow in the liver. However, nearly a century later, they were proven to have nothing to do with the liver at all. Beginning in 1943, the Federal Trade Commission fought for a name change.

By 1959, the case was settled, and the product became Carter's Little Pills, removing any reference to the liver. The saying gradually changed after that and became "more than Carter has little pills."

Advertisement for Carter's Little Liver Pills, circa 1900
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Carter's Little Pills Today

And still, the phrase persists. A wide swath of the news-watching American public was confused when in 2013, New Jersey Congressman Bill Pascrell made mention of Carter's Little Pills. During an appearance on The Rachel Maddow Show, he said that a political opponent "had more money than Carter had liver pills." "Jimmy Carter?" people wondered. Only those exposed to the abundance of earlier advertising knew the real story. It's a disappearing phrase, but you'll still hear it occasionally if you listen closely enough.

Most surprising of all? While the marketing is practically non-existent today and the packaging has changed, you can still find these storied little pills on Amazon. Carter's Little Pills are currently offered as a sodium-free laxative, the active ingredient of which is bisacodyl.

So the next time you hear, "She/he has more [insert noun here] than Carter has little pills," you'll know exactly where the saying originates.

Have you ever heard this saying? Do you still use it daily? What other phrases make you curious about their hidden histories?

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