In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “patent medicine” became very popular for a variety of aches, ailments, and diseases. Often sold by traveling salespeople 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 America.
Produced by large companies as well as small family operations, there were remedies for almost any ailment including venereal diseases, tuberculosis, infant colic, digestive problems, “female complaints,” and even cancer. These many remedies were openly sold to the public in retail stores, by individual salesmen, and in what would develop into the traveling medicine show.
The 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.
One 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.
These 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 in medicines.
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 talented showman and storyteller. 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.”
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, these 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.