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

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A page from the Illustrated London News advertising Carter's Little Liver Pills, 12th September 1903.
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They have more money than Carter has little pills. Wait, what? If you’ve ever found yourself 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 just doesn’t make any sense to you, let us help. This one is a saying that many Southerners know well, which is why we wanted to get to the bottom of it. Here’s the story of Carter and his little pills.

We’ll just 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 patent medicine developed in 1868 by Erie, Pennsylvania’s Samuel J. Carter. At one time, everyone knew Carter’s Little Liver Pills because they were advertised widely. So widely, in fact, that it seemed Carter had an endless supply of pills—which is why the saying originated as “more than Carter has little liver pills.”

"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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Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the pills were advertised by Carter’s Products of New York. The pills were marketed in newspapers and on cards as a potential cure-all. Carter’s claimed the pills would ease a variety of ailments, including headaches, digestive issues, and so-called torpid liver. They were very common in American households and could also be found internationally.

Carter’s Little Liver Pills were billed as a medicine aiding 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, completely removing any reference to the liver. From there, the saying gradually changed too and became "more than Carter has little pills."

Advertisement for Carter's Little Liver Pills, circa 1900
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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 who’d been 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 on offer 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.

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