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Medicine Show in Old West: Patent Medicines and drugs during 19th Century before tv advertisement

Updated on November 4, 2015
Nerve and Brain Tablets
Nerve and Brain Tablets | Source

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.

The Medicines

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.

Hamlin's Wizard Oil
Hamlin's Wizard Oil | Source

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. 

Kilmer's Swamp root
Kilmer's Swamp root | Source

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

Other entrepreneurs

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.

Cold cure old patent medicien ad
Cold cure old patent medicien ad | Source

Dangerous Ingredients

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.

Folk medicine


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.

© 2011 Don A. Hoglund


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    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I know the little time I spent on my grandparents farm as a kid were very boring. That was partly because there were no other kids around. Later, when they retired to live tin town I found much more to do. Thankds for commenting.

    • FlyingBick profile image


      7 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      You are right about life on the frontier being boring. My mother, who is 97, was raised on a cattle ranch in the Sandhills of Saskatchewan. When the men hooked up the team and drove to town it was a very exciting day for her and her sisters. She tells me that going to town was the only entertainment they had.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I try to encourage constructive criticism, not necessarily in agreement.However, I have found that some who disagree are downright unintelligible.I appreciate the positive comment however. Thank you.

    • profile image


      8 years ago from Dayton, ohio

      You only want construtive critisium? What's the fun in that. actually I always try to be construtive. Even if I diagree with the writer. This is a very good hub on an interesting topic.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I think back then they were mostly ignorant of the dangerous consequences of the ingredients.Thanks for the comment and the rating.

    • suziecat7 profile image


      8 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Love this Hub. The dangerous ingredients in medicine then are recreational now. Thanks for the great read. Rated up!

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      They provided entertainment on the frontier in order to sell their medicines. Unfortunately many of the medicines were apt to do more harm than good. Glad you liked it. Thanks for commenting and voting.

    • kittythedreamer profile image

      Kitty Fields 

      8 years ago from Summerland

      Really intriguing and educational. I am always fascinated to learn about medicines and never even thought to do research on some of the first medicines. Also, I had no idea that they had "medicine shows"! Awesome hub. Voted up and awesome.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I'm really glad you enjoyed it.It was a colorful era.Thanks for commenting.

    • Just Ask Susan profile image

      Susan Zutautas 

      8 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Very interesting hub that I really enjoyed reading.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I'm not surprised that you had the same sort of thing. It started in Europe before coming here.The US had a Chinese population that came to work on the Railroads and pretty much kept to themselves. I am sure there cures entered the market.Thanks for reading and for your input.

    • Rod Marsden profile image

      Rod Marsden 

      8 years ago from Wollongong, NSW, Australia

      Voted up. Not bad. The old snake oil cure-all seems to be popular in Westerns.

      In Australia we had pretty much the same sort of thing happening in the 19th Century. Some of the cures were Chinese and actually did have medicinal value.

      Today rhino horns and elephant tusks reduced to powder and taken as aphrodisiacs is a real worry. No medicinal value but I don't like seeing such animals poached over such nonsense.

      From Medieval times right up to the beginning of the 20th Century Mummy (the crushed to powder bones and wrappings of the Egyptian dead) was bottled and used for medicinal purposes as a tonic drink (just add water), something to rub onto a wound to heal it and, made into a paste, something to paint with. I have worked on a few stories with these facts in mind.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thank you for reading it. I appreciate the comment and vote.

    • prasetio30 profile image


      8 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Very informative. Thanks for writing this and share with us. I always learn much from you. Vote up. Take care!

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Like one of my history professors commented years ago--in the 19th Century a drug store was really a drug store.Thanks for commenting.

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Hazelton 

      8 years ago from Sunny Florida

      With the large amount of the dangerous stuff it's no wonder they felt so good directly after they took it.

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thank you for reading it and commenting.I am glad you found it interesting.

    • Jeremey profile image


      8 years ago from Arizona

      This is a nice little piece of history I was unfamiliar with. Much enjoyed, thanks!

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for reading and commenting. We will always have hucksters with us.

    • The Frog Prince profile image

      The Frog Prince 

      8 years ago from Arlington, TX

      Hey now! We have recently been assaulted once again by a Snake Oil Salesman. People bought the crap too.

      Excellent Hub but I did have to crack a funny that really isn't too funny.

      The Frog

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I appreciate your reading it and commenting.I am glad you found it interesting.

    • creativeone59 profile image

      benny Faye Douglass 

      8 years ago from Gold Canyon, Arizona

      Thank you dahoglund for a very informative and useful hub on The medicine shows and patent medicine in the 19th century. Very interesting read. Thank you for sharing. Godspeed. creativeone59

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Come to think of it I seem to remember cork top bottles when I was a kid.Thanks for commenting and voting.

    • PhoenixV profile image


      8 years ago from USA

      I would love to have a collection of those old snake oil remedy bottles and containers. I used to have a few cork top bottles. Voted up!

    • dahoglund profile imageAUTHOR

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      I think the movies and such seldom show just how drab and lonely things were on the frontier.Any kind of entertainment would be welcome.I think all those disclaimers in the medicine ads now are probably imposed by the government.They make it sound like the cure might be worse than the disease.

      Thanks for the comment and the rating.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      8 years ago from Houston, Texas

      It would have been quite an occasion for those wagons to come into town and put on those medicine shows back in pioneer days. Quite a break from the ordinary!

      As to medicines today...every now and then ones approved get pulled from the market due to bad side-effects and then the lawsuits start! Every medicine has side effects. Sometimes listening to all the side effects on television, I wonder to myself why anyone would want to take them!

      Some of the old tried and true are still good, like aspirin and Vicks.

      This is an entertaining hub just as those medicine shows of the past were certainly entertaining in their own right. Up and useful!


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