Mother Earth Living

Patent Medicines

In America in the midnineteenth century, the practice of medicine was on the brink of change. On one hand, there existed a long tradition of herbal folk remedies which had evolved into a sizable industry in the capable hands of the Shakers. On the other, the newly founded American Medical Association was concerned with lending credibility to medicine as a formally trained profession.

The majority of physicians, however, had been trained through two-year apprenticeships; medicines could be manufactured by anyone who wanted to do so, and regulations assuring quality control or truth in advertising were nonexistent.

The Civil War produced large numbers of sick and wounded and a correspond­ing increase in medical practitioners of all kinds. Further, advertising oppor­tunities increased as newspapers and magazines proliferated, and the new transcontinental railroad made ­shipping and travel easy. Many would-be entrepreneurs looked to the ­Shakers’ success in producing and marketing herbal blends: surely, if one could concoct medicines cheaply, advertise them widely, and sell at a large profit, riches would accrue. A great many people must have had these thoughts, because the 1870s saw a rapid surge in new “patent” medicines.

The term “patent” is some­what misleading, as these early medicines weren’t really patented. Rather, the term comes from a time when European royalty bequeathed patents, or permissions, to favored medical people, allowing them to produce certain herbal formulas. Had the American medicines actually been legally patented, the manufacturers would have had to disclose their recipes. And, according to the laws of that time, their patents would have expired after seventeen years, and their formulas and trade names would have reverted to the public domain. Product names, along with the logo and label design, were usually trademarked for protection, however.

In some cases, the formula for a patent medicine was given out freely by the manufacturer, or even written on the label. The manufacturer hoped that, given this information, physicians would be more inclined to recommend it. Because many of the herbal ingredients weren’t readily available to the general public (nor was the correct herbal name necessarily used), their recipes were safe. For example, Dr. Ayer of Massachusetts freely published the following rec­ipe for Ayer’s Wild Cherry Expectorant, which was touted as a cure for catarrh, bronchitis, and influenza: “Mix together 3 grains acetate of morphia, 2 fluid drachms tincture of bloodroot, 3 fluid drachms each antimonial wine and ipecacuanha wine, and 3 fluid ounces syrup of wild cherry bark.”

The early work of the Shakers with herbal remedies had laid some legitimate groundwork for commercial medications. More often than not, though, the patent medicine makers of the 1870s and later were mainly interested in mixing up something that tasted bad and was cheap to produce. Most important, the mixture needed to contain enough alcohol to persuade the patient that it would indeed make one feel better right away. One doctor who worked with physicians trained in the last century reports that women came to rely on Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound to the point of addiction: it contained as much as 25 percent alcohol.

Cocaine–cheap, available, and legal–also showed up in a great many medicines of the day. Lloyd Manufacturing Company of Albany, New York, marketed Cocaine Toothache Drops for children, advertising them as an “Instantaneous Cure!” Along with alcohol, cocaine was an active ingredient in remedies for sleeplessness in children, pain, headaches, and many other ills, real or imagined. Coca-Cola, formulated in 1886 by Atlanta pharmacist Dr. John Pemberton, included a small amount of cocaine and was advertised as a “brain tonic and intellectual beverage” that might also relieve menstrual distress. In 1903, the cocaine was replaced by a non-narcotic extract from coca leaves, but an entire generation had grown up on the fortified beverage used as a tonic.

Alcoholism and other addictions became increasingly prevalent social problems–in part due to the potent nature of many patent medicines–and some manufacturers attacked them with “secret” cures. The pitch was often to the wives, who were to add the remedy to the drunken husband’s morning coffee. The Sears, Roebuck & Company catalog in the early 1900s offered “Sears’ Cure for the Opium and Morphine Habit, and White Star Liquor Cure”.

Patent medicine purveyors looked for any gimmick that would capture the public’s attention. Smaller companies traveled in medicine shows, which often sported American Indians, musicians, dancers, minstrels, and animals as well. These shows were always “free and open to the public”. While most offered something for all ages, they primarily aimed to strike directly at the secret fears of the adults in attendance. Some skits were thinly veiled plays on women’s fears of their own physicians; others raised men’s concerns about their masculinity. Some portrayed sick and dying children, always brought back to health by the peddler’s cure. When the audience was excited to a near frenzy, full of fear for their health, full of anger at the villain, enthusiastic to be “cured” of whatever ailment the hawker had evoked in their minds, the bottles of “Rescue for Weak Men, Prof. Jules Laborde’s Wonderful French Preparation of ‘Calthos’ that Restores Lost Manhood” or “Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills For Pale People” would be brought out.

These vendors of herbal wares played upon the public’s fears, offering thousands of remedies to a population that was suffering the ills of poor diet and unhealthy water supplies: stomach complaints, kidney problems, coughs, colds, tuberculosis, and the toothache, to name a few. With each new wave of illness, be it a smallpox epidemic, yellow fever, malaria, or venereal disease, a new generation of patent medicines would arrive to “cure” the suffering.

There were patent products for restoring hair on men and women, for removing hair from ladies’ upper lips, for coloring hair and strengthening hair. Other treatments promised increased bustlines. Egyptian Regulator Tea supposedly gave someone named Mabel Gray, “the beautiful but frail courtesan” of London, instant popularity due to her increased bust size. Promises of adding from 2 to 6 inches “in the appropriate places” led to rapid sales. (The same formula was also sold as a freckle remover.) In an age when few commercial preparations were available, the cosmetics industry enjoyed rapid and profitable growth along with the growth in patent medicines.

Names that sounded exotic sold well, as did names that were fun on the tongue. Kickapoo Indian Sagwa, a concoction of roots, herbs, barks, and leaves purported to cure “all the various symptoms of Dyspepsia, including Neuralgia, Headache, Constipation, Kidney Disease, Etc.”, was actually brewed up in the backyard of promoters John Healy and Charles Bigelow. The attraction of Indian-sounding remedies came from the persistent belief, based in fact and cultivated to a high pitch by the medicine shows, that the American Indian was a natural physician privy to secrets of plants unknown to white men. The formula for Kickapoo Indian Oil, another liniment said to cure everything the Sagwa wouldn’t, was simply an imitation of the more famous Hamlin’s Wizard Oil.

Hamlin’s Wizard Oil enjoyed a long success for a number of ailments. It was promoted as a liniment with a difference; beyond its use for rheumatic pain and sore muscles, it was hawked for treating pneumonia, cancer, and hydrophobia. Actually, Wizard Oil was a fairly respectable liniment, though not the miracle cure it was advertised to be. Containing camphor, ammonia, chloroform, sassafras, cloves, and turpentine along with 50 to 70 percent alcohol, it had a warming effect when used as a liniment. Taken internally, it had a palliative effect on the patient–for obvious reasons.

Many early patent medicines had their origins in traditional folk remedies which were often efficacious. Yellow root (goldenseal), for instance, was a common herb effective against mouth sores, sore throat, and the like. But a less-than-honest medicine peddler mixed the herb with turpentine, cocaine, and large amounts of alcohol and sold it as a cure-all for much more serious illnesses.

Catarrh, a simple inflammation of the nasal passages or throat, was treated with such common-sense substances as baking soda, borax, household salt, and carbolic acid; Munyon’s Catarrh Tablets, formulated from these simple ingredients, were peddled as a cure for whooping cough, ­tuberculosis, and pneumonia, too.

Pinkroot (Spigelia marylandica), used as a vermifuge, found its way into many patent medicines. Some had beneficial effects, while others were totally unsafe. Unfortunately, the public had no way of knowing which was which. With legitimate herbal remedies being sold just as vigorously and extravagantly as the hoaxes, there were no rules by which to make decisions.

Little wonder that public concern caused Congress to pass the Food and Drug act of 1906. The law had some flaws, but it established a legal foundation for the amendments that followed in ensuing years.

A number of popular medications today have their roots in the patent medicines of the past century, and before that, in common folk remedies. Listerine, for example, which contains oils of thyme, mint, and eucalyptus, was originally advertised as a treatment for sore gums and other ailments of the mouth. Today its popularity depends on the antiseptic qualities of ingredients that have been considered medicinal for generations. The herbs listed on the label are still used individually by many who prefer an herbal treatment for mouth sores.

Bromo-Seltzer has evolved from a nineteenth-century patent medicine, as have Tums and Rolaids, which are basically just chalk with oil of mint. The formulas haven’t changed much over the generations. Carter’s Little Liver Pills are found today on the pharmacy shelf as Carter’s Little Pills.

Time, regulation, and society’s developing awareness have allowed some public assurance that medications will say what they do and do what they say. Americans have become better educated–partly by bearing the burdens of past mistakes–and are less likely to fall under the spell of hawkers, traveling shows, and extravagant claims in advertising.

Jim Long is a dedicated herbalist and author in Oak Grove, Arkansas. The herbal products he sells at his Long Creek Herb Farm are guaranteed to cure any ailment, any discomfort, any ache, pain, or soreness that the labels say they will.

  • Published on Feb 1, 1993
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