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Patent Medicines Dubious Cures

Updated on March 19, 2014

In the United States after the Civil War saw a boom in advertising and consumer products, particularly in the field of medicine. Before this time home remedies were all the medicine that was available for people’s aches and pains.

In this post war period until the turn of the century there was a plethora of over the counter medicine available . It wasn’t until the 1890’s that aspirin was readily available for pain relief.  So what could people use in case of toothache or injury? Well, the old standby liquor was always popular. But patent medicines were also very popular, especially since they all contained liquor, cocaine, opium or chloroform. Get enough opium in your system and the toothache doesn't matter any more.

A proper lady would not drink alcohol for a toothache but she might drink Mrs. Pinkham’s Vegetable compound (which was 18 percent alcohol) or other medicines she could buy at the local store. Actually many women became addicted to the medications, but were able to disguise it because there were taking medicine, not drinking alcohol.

Beside pain relief patent medicines purported to cure any number of ailments including Dyspepsia (chronic stomach problem) or Catarrah (a stuffy nose). I am not sure how cocaine would cure a stuffy nose, but once you took the dose you probably didn’t care. These medicines also supposedly cured cancer, tuberculosis, cholera and epilepsy.

Early Advertising

Patent medicine was a popular term, but inaccurate. To patent the product would have taken years and revealed the dubious main ingredients. In any case, that type of patenting was not done until after many of these products were removed from the market.

But, many of these medicines were trademarked. That is there name and logo were registered so they could be protected. Many of the patent medicines were products of the new field of mass advertising.

There had always been medicine of course, but it was mixed up at home or by a physician. Over the counter medicines popularized by wide spread advertising and the use of trade cards was a relatively new invention of the late 19th century.

Folklore Remedies

These medicines all had a back story to them. They were based on an old family cure or ancient knowledge. Cures that supposedly came from Native Americans were especially popular. Indians were thought to have great knowledge of medicinal plants and the medicines producers were making these compounds available to the general public.

Medicine companies advertised extensively in newspapers, which often had testimonials from satisfied customers describing their miracle cures. The ads could tell a compelling story and were undoubtedly effective.

Newspaper advertisement

Trade Card Front

Trade Cards

Millions of advertising trade cards were distributed through groceries and pharmacies advertising the many different patent medicines available before the 1920's. The ads were full-color, with dramatic images.

On the other side of the illustration there was often a long explanation of the origin and effectiveness of the product for many different complaints.

Text From back of trade card

For Scrofula and all scrofulous, mercurial and blood disorders, the best remedy is Ayer's Compund Concentrated Extract of Sasparilla--called for convenience, Ayer's Sasparilla. It is composed of the Sasparilla-root of the tropics, Stillingia, Yello Dock, Mandrake, and other roots held in high repute for their alterative, diuretic, tonic and curative properties. The active medicinal principles of these roots, extracted by a process peculiarly our own, are chemically united in Ayer's Sasparilla with the Iodide of Potassium and Iron, forming by far the most economical and reliable blood-purifying medicine that can be used.

Ayer's pills

End of Patent Medicine

Of course none of these medications worked. Any natural ingredients were slight compared to the overwhelming amount of intoxicants in the medicines.

People felt better because the medicine made them feel better but they were not cures in any sense of the word. The medicines “worked” through a combination of intoxication and the power of suggestion.

Almost all of them were quickly removed from the market after the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act passed in 1906, which required all medications that contained any stimulants or intoxicants to list them on the label and that all claims on the label must be substantiated.


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    • Jane Bovary profile image

      Jane Bovary 7 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Ah, beware the snake-oil salesmen...

      I recently read about Godfrey's Cordial which contained quite large amounts of opium and used to be given to infants and children. I'll bet that kept them quiet. Loved the posters here.