Patent Medicine & the Popular Medicine Show
the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “patent
medicine” became very popular for a variety of aches, ailments, and
diseases. Often sold by traveling sales people in what became known as
“medicine shows,” these many decoctions were often sold with colorful
names and even more colorful claims. Despite the name, "patent medicine,"
these elixirs and tonics were rarely patented, with the exception of a few
including Castoria, and instead were often trademarked. In fact, chemical
patents did not come into use in the United States until 1925.
Also called “proprietary medicines,” these elixirs and tonics originated
in England and were manufactured under grants, or "patents of royal
favor," to those who provided medicine to the Royal Family, hence, the
name. In the 18th century, these medicines began to be exported
to America and were sold by a variety of merchants, including grocers,
goldsmiths, drugstores, and even postmasters.
Flourishing in the United States from the start, by the middle of the 19th
century, the manufacture of patent medicines was a major industry in
Produced by large companies as well as small family operations, there were
remedies for almost any ailment including
digestive problems, “female complaints,” and even
remedies were openly sold to the public in retail stores, by
individual salesmen, and in what would develop into the traveling medicine
promotion of patent medicines was one of the first major products heavily
displayed in the early advertising industry. During this time, numerous
advertising and sales techniques were pioneered by patent medicine
promoters. Often, these advertisements would promote exotic ingredients,
even when their actual effects came from more common drugs. “Branding” of
products became popular at this time in order to distinguish one medicine
from its numerous competitors. Though most patent medicines were sold at
high prices, they were generally made from cheap ingredients. Pharmacists,
who knew the composition of these
remedies, would often manufacture
similar products and sell them at lower prices. To counteract this,
branded medicine advertisements urged the public to accept no substitutes.
popular group of patent medicines – liniments and ointments – often
promoted themselves as containing snake oil, which was thought to have
been a cure-all at the time. This would eventually lead to the use of the
term “snake oil salesman,” a lasting synonym for a charlatan.
medicines were very popular, even though many of them were laced with
ample doses of alcohol, morphine, opium, or cocaine and were advertised
for babies and children, sometimes ending in tragic results. With no
regulation on their often questionable ingredients, concerns began to grow
about these medicines. Their effectiveness was also questionable and
ingredients usually kept secret, leading to them being referred to as
"quack" medicines. Just a few instances of high alcohol levels included
Lydia Pinkham's Women's Tonic, which contained 19% alcohol; Dr. Kilmer's
Swamp Root was 12 %, and Hostetter's Bitters, an amazing 32%.
From the beginning, many doctors and medical societies were critical of
patent medicines, arguing that they did not cure illnesses, discouraged
the sick from seeking legitimate treatments, and caused alcohol and drug
dependency. More fierce resistance came from the temperance movement of
the late 19th century, who loudly protested the use of alcohol
Resisting these criticisms, manufacturers established an organization for
themselves called “The Proprietary Association,” in 1881. The trade group
of medicine producers, aided by the press, which had grown dependent on
the money received from remedy advertising, fought bitterly against any
type of regulation. However, in the end, their resistance would be
overcome by the demand for safety, and in 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act
was enacted, which required manufacturers to list their ingredients on
packaging labels and restricted misleading advertising. Later, in 1938,
another law required that manufacturers test their products for safety
before marketing them; and in 1962, tests for effectiveness were required.
Though many patent medicines were only a ruse, there were a few legitimate
ones that delivered the promised results such as Listerine, which was
developed in 1879, Bayer Aspirin in 1899, Milk of Magnesia in 1880, Ex-Lax
in 1905; and Richardson's Croup and Pneumonia Cure Salve in the 1890's,
which is now known as Vick's VapoRub.
Another method of publicity taken to sell these many patent medicines was
the ever popular “Medicine Show,” which sometimes resembled a small
traveling circus, complete with vaudeville-style entertainment, “Muscle
Man” acts; magic tricks, and Native American and Wild West themes. These
shows had their origins in the performances put on by traveling charlatans
in 14th century Europe, when circuses and theaters were banned
and performers had only the marketplace or patrons for support. Later, in
Colonial America, patent medicine vendors would set up booths at local
fairs. As early as 1773, laws were being passed against their excesses. By
the late 19th century, Medicine Shows flourished in the United
States, especially in the Midwest and in the rural South.
The Medicine Man, often called
“Professor,” or sometimes “Doctor,” was generally neither; but rather, was
a a talented showman and story teller. With the “Professor” at the center,
these medicine shows were often structured around entertainers who could
be expected to draw a crowd of potential customers who would listen to,
and then purchase, the “miracle elixirs” offered by the "doctor."
Cottonbale Medicine Advertisement, 1888.
A medicine wagon was often utilized by small
within which were made the elixirs and tonics.
Much ado was made prior to these events,
such as posters and banners displaying the time and place of the show and
tickets of admission. Sometimes these “shows” were so large, that halls or
hotels were booked for the troupes of entertainers, which might be enacted
several times throughout the day and evening. However, most often, they
were held right on the street, hopefully attracting every passerby. Often,
remedies and elixirs were manufactured and bottled in the same wagon
in which the show traveled.
Between entertainment acts, the “Professor” would lecture the crowd about
his miraculous elixir, mixing grandiose claims with interesting anecdotes
and stories. Often the audience was encouraged to join in with singing
entertainers. "Muscle man" acts were especially popular in these shows, in
order to impress the crowd with the strength and vigor he obtained from a
particular potion. During these presentations, the “Professor,” frequently
employed shills, who would step forward from the crowd and offer
"unsolicited" testimonials about the benefits of the medicine for sale.
Other “plants” within the audience, who had an obvious affliction, such as
a limp, would shuffle forward and challenge the “Medicine Man” and his
claims. Amazingly, after the “Professor” gave the individual a teaspoon of
his “magical elixir,” the rube was suddenly cured. Though many, no doubt,
knew that these antics were a bit unbelievable, they wanted to believe
that this particular cure really worked.
a addition to the “Mom and Pop” operations that wound their way through
small towns and rural areas with their “Medicine Wagons,” there were
several large manufacturers, that presented “Medicine Shows” in a big
manner. The most well known of these was the Kickapoo Indian Medicine
Company. Headquartered in New Haven, Connecticut, far away from the