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Medicine Show in Old West: Patent Medicines and drugs during 19th Century before tv advertisement
The Medicine Show Goes On
As early as the Middle Ages medications have been sold by a combination of hucksters, showmen and sincere promoters. Prior to the twentieth century consumers had very little way of knowing if medications they bought were useful or harmful. Prior to exposes and government regulation of the early 20th Century, patent medicines and those that sold them provided questionable cures for everything that ails you along with entertainment. Today’s ads for patent medicines, however, still echo the style of those in the frontier days.
Early on the promoters used advertising. Newspapers of the time probably had more medicine advertisements than for anything else. Now they send out catalogs, advertise in magazines, and on television.
Patent Medicines ranged from respectable companies that produced them in factories to totally dangerous concoctions made up in hotel bathtubs or other makeshift places from ingredients like alcohol, or opium,
The Medicine show
The blending of hawking patent medicines and putting on a show goes back to the Middle Ages. It was certainly active in the United States in the Colonial Period as it was in England during the same period.
They discovered the way to sell their concoctions was to attract a crowd and put on a show. The peddlers of medicines came into towns during fairs and other times people gathered. They set up platforms, did a show, gave a pitch and sold remedies and went their way. In some cases the leaders of towns were bothered and passed laws to outlaw such activities but it failed to stop the sellers. Despite the laws the promoters persisted.
The heyday of the medicine show was the latter part of the 19th Century. The performances ranged from single showmen to, by this time, much more elaborate shows. They ranged from single performers to evenings of drama, vaudeville, and even Wild West Shows, minstrel’s, magic, bands, parades and various other entertainments. They have played opera houses, halls, tents, ballparks, showboats and tents. Anyplace large or small where they could get people together they performed and sold their medicines.
Kickapoo Indian Sagwa
Cartoonist Al Capp in his strip Lil’ Abner made references to Kickapoo Joy Juice. It was probably a reference to this product. John E. Healey and “Nevada Ned” Oliver formed the Kickapoo Indian Medicine company to sell Kickapoo Indian Sagwa. It consisted of herbs and alcohol but it was the promotion that gave it a place in history. The promoters hired hundreds of Indians to put on a show. None of the Indians were Kickapoo however. They capitalized on an association of the red man’s vigor and white mans nostrums. They also knew that easterners had a curiosity about the Indians they did not know firsthand but were aware of reports of constant Indian fighting in the West.
Typically Kickapoo shows had half a dozen Indians and about the same number of whites. The show would start with Indians sitting in front of a backdrop of an Indian scene with torch light illumination. An actor wearing long hair and buckskins would be represented as a “scout” would introduce the Indians one by one and describe their heroisms. Five would merely grunt and the sixth Indian would give a speech in his native tongue, which the scout would interpret. It described the origin of the remedy. Which they claimed saved many Indian lives. After the sales pitch about half of the performers went into the crowd to sell while the rest of the whites played music and the Indians beat on Tom-Toms and gave war whoops.
During the 1880’s there were about seventy-five Kickapoo shows touring the country. Occasionally they promoted a show with as many as a hundred performers. but it was not a traveling show.
Nevada Ned had one show for a whole season in New Jersey. It had a wagon train attacked by Indians and saved by cowboys who were then threatened by a prairie fire. They sold $4,000 worth of Kickapoo Indians Sagwa every week. It is reported that Buffalo Bill Cody was in the audience but nobody knows if he bought any of the medicine.
Hamlin’s Wizard Oil
John Austen Hamlin was a magician. He found he could use his sleight of hand skills to promote liniment. He called his remedy Wizard Oil and he made it one of the best known liniments in the country.
Hamlin had performers touring the country in groups consisting of a lecturer, a driver, and a male quartet. Each group had a special wagon pulled by a four or six horse team with a built in parlor organ. The wagon was turned into a stage and the quartet played and sang. They were stylish with silk top hats, frock coats, pinstripe pants, and patent leather shoes with spats. Sometimes the audience sang along. Pamphlets were distributed with words to songs and pitches for Wizard oil. During the day the lecturer called on local druggists to stock the wizard oil and the quartet worked with church and charity groups. Team
There were other major medicine promoters and also a vast number of small-time medicine men of various degrees of honesty.
Many of the small time medicine shows had performers without much talent, drug and alcohol addiction was common and many died broke, due to expensive habits, bad management. Ingredients of the product were often dubious.
Door to door sales.
J.R. Watkins Incorporated started in Minnesota in 1868 by selling liniment door to door. They later expanded the line of products to baking goods such as pepper and vanilla. As far as I know they never engaged in the medicine show method of selling but tried to build a reliable following of customers for their products. There were also other companies following this pattern. Although door-to-door selling is no longer popular the company is still doing business. There are some other companies similar to Watkins.
Back in the 1950’s my brother sold for Watkins and at times I also worked for him.
Information in this article has been gleaned from the following sources.
The Medicine Show by James Harvey Young, PhD in The Toadstool Millionaires: A Social History of Patent Medicines in America before federal regulation
Wikipedia articles on: Hamlin’s Wizard Oil, Patent medicine, The end of the patent medicine era and Medicine Show.
In the 1880’s there were many advertisements in the newspapers for cures of many things, from memory loss to heart disease. Most contained liberal amounts of alcohol, morphine, cocaine, and opium.
Not until well into the 20th Century did most doctors get the kind of training that we are led in our day to expect. It would have been hard for the ordinary person to tell the difference between a good doctor and a Quake. And there were many quakes and they often sold questionable medications.
The Shakers, a religious sect, had developed a large industry of herbal medicines. The Shakers did help set up standards for commercial medications.
There were also some legitimate Indian medications and also Chinese medications.
There were also other sources of medicines that had nothing to do with the medicine shows. However there was no real way for the consumer to know what was legitimate and what was not.
Sampling of Products from the patent medicine days
Many brands and products are still being sold. Obviously some had to change the ingredients, although the sales pitches have a lot of the attitudes of the past. Actually it might have been more fun back in the frontier days, as opposed to the irritating commercials on television.
Some products I still see around and some I have used myself:
Absorbine Jr., Anacin, Bayer Aspirin, Bromo-Seltzer, Doan’s Pills, Fletchers Castoria, Geritol, Lormans Indian Oil, Vicks Vapor Rub.
The era of the medicine show was an interesting one in terms of colorfulness of frontier life and to the history of entertainment. Legitimate medicine was not always as reliable as one might wish which left and opening for quakes, charlatans and dangerous mixtures. There were, of coarse, many good medications but the consumer was hard put to know which was which. How does one distinguish the Snake Oil, medications with hazardous ingredients from the good and useful medicines? Liniment was probably a safe bet as long as a person used it externally. What they did get was the benefit of the showmanship of the salesmen selling patent medicines in A Wild West Show, a song and dance routine and vaudeville like acts.
- Green Mountain Rustlers: Short Story of the West
This is a western short story with a deaf dog and deaf boy as major characters. It is one in a series.The boy uses sign to talk to his dog and others.
© 2011 Don A. Hoglund