Patent Medicines

Step right up, don't push, plenty of panaceas for everyone.


| February/March 1993





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.

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