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Patent Medicine of the Old West

Updated on April 7, 2011

Tonics, Salves and Cure-Alls

Diphtheria instantly relieved and permanently cured by using "Kurakoff, Nature's Life Preserver."

If you were a cowboy living in the 1800's on the frontier in the west, you may have seen a sign with a statement like the one above.

Traveling Medicine men selling all sorts of dollar-a bottle tonics and restoratives for any matter of mental or physical ills were part of the normal scenery in an old west town.

These tonics and patent medicines were popular in the western country for many reasons,

* Just as in society today, the cowboys and frontier men wanted a cheap, quick, painless way to reach good health.

* Gullibility, ignorance and pure boredom were also factors.

* The most important reason was just the fact that there was a scarcity of qualified doctors. In their absence, "granny" remedies and magic cure-all's were substituted.

* To make matters worse, many of the elixirs were concocted by greed-inspired men who could boast a medical degree, and some of the poorly trained physicians in country practice actually prescribed the pills and potions of the traveling medicine men.

The main reason for the tonics demand was the alcohol content.

Some of the more popular tonics like Hostetter's Celebrated Stomach Bitters had an alcohol content of 44.3% by volume. Others, like Parkers Tonic had 41.6% and Peruna had 28%.

The pioneers forked over their hard-earned dollars for every kind of tonic, salve, or solution. And it was not just the cowboys or miners who paid for the tonics. People of all ages and walks of life, including women, and children used the patent medicines.

Which in turn, outraged the legitimate doctors. Doctors already had the daunting task of over coming the terrain and sheer distances between towns and well as the absence of public health precautions resulting in constant epidemics. Now they had to contend with the cheap easier fix for health ailments.

When the doctors were ultimately called, it was often to late for the doctor to help. The doctors were blamed for deaths that were directly or indirectly related to the Traveling Medicine men tonics.

The Traveling Medicine Men paved the way for all manner of "quackery". The variety was limited only by the imagination of the inventors and the gullibility of the suffering. From the doctors gadgets to clinics and health institutes that promised quick cures for almost everything.

In Oklahoma and Kansas before the turn of the century two fast-talking con men swindled hundreds of unsuspecting citizens (mostly women) with an imaginative patent medicine scheme. One of the "doctors" would appear in a town and spend a week or so visiting all the chronic cases, hypochondriacs and any other potential pushover's he could find. He was glib and sympathetic, and as he chatted with them he wrote down all their symptoms, how long they had been suffering and, of course, his analysis of their ability to pay. People were pleased because he listened, and he didn't try to force his medicines on them. Then, with his research completed, he'd leave town.

Not long after wards, his henchman would appear, and this second "doctor" would set up an office and advertise extensively in the community newspaper. Soon the same complainers came to see them. A nurse, (also part of the team) would get the patient's name, and the "doctor" would proceed to look up the individual's history secured the week before by his cohort.

When the victim was ushered in, the smooth talking quack would rattle off the patient's symptoms in a wise, professional manner. The dupe, of course, would be amazed at the "doctor's" brilliance, and when a guaranteed cure was offered-payable in advanced, of course- the response was immediate. By the time the phony physician had gone through this entire list, he would have a bundle of money, all for a few bottles of cheap tonic, which he gave to each caller as the first step in his treatment. And that would also be the last, too, because the "doctor" would suddenly disappear-off to the next frontier town where his partner had prepared a new clientele.

(The above story is from the book, "Doctors of the Old West" by Robert F. Karolevitz)

PIoneer Women
PIoneer Women

A Pioneer's Woman's Natural Remedies

"Granny Remedies" from the Old West

Many of the pioneer women of the 1800's practiced "Granny Medicine". It was a strange mix of superstition, religious fervor and simple ignorance. The women, though, practiced it with great faith and not for financial gain. Some of the treatments actually brought relief, especially the herb teas, but mostly they were little better than a rabbit's foot or a four leaf clover. The biggest problem with the "Granny Remedies", was the delay of proper medical attention.

Below is a list of frontier ingredients for do - it - yourself remedies,

Oil of geese, wolves, bears or polecats for Rheumatism.

Mashed cabbage- for ulcer or cancer in breasts.

Mashed snails and earthworms in water for Diphtheria.

Boiled pumpkin seeds- used for a tea to help stomach worms.

Scorpion Oil- (I guess if you didn't get hurt catching it!) for use as a diuretic in venereal disease.

Wood ashes or cobwebs to staunch bleeding.

Brandy and red pepper for cholera.

Willow- the inner bark was used to make tea for reducing fever.

Mint- mint leaves made into tea soothes upset stomach

Violets- a strong tea made with the leaves was used to wash sores. Now it is thought that it contains an antiseptic property.

Dandelion- the leaves and small flower buds were a sought after spring green. Dried and roasted roots made a coffee substitute. Also used as a remedy for dropsy.

Chicory- Young leaves were eaten as a spring green and the roots dried and roasted as a coffee substitute.

Cranes Bill- The powdered root was used to stop bleeding of wounds. Tea was taken for dysentery.

Red Raspberry- Leaves dried and made into tea were used for dysentery, ease childbirth pains and a was for sores.

Wild Cherry- The inner bark was used as a remedy for the ague, coughs, and a sedative.

Kickapoo Indian Oil Patent Medicine
Kickapoo Indian Oil Patent Medicine

A List of the Patent Medicines

From A-Z

If you had imagination, a little knowledge of healing herbs and a great sales pitch you could have sold patent medicines on the prairie in the old west. Drugstore shelves were stocked high with unusual bottles with fancy labels and fancier titles. Some of the tonics and nostrums were harmless, containing only sugar water, but others were dangerously harmful. Below is an incomplete list of nostrums you could buy from a traveling medicine show- but is a great glimpse into the overwhelming popularity of these tonics and cure-alls that blanketed the old west.

Dr. Acker's English Elixir Mexican Mustang Liniment

Anderson's Pills Moffat's Bitters

Autumn Leaf Extract for Females Moxie Nerve Food

Ayer's Cathartic Pills Murray's Specific

Ayer's Cherry Pectoral Nez Perce Catarrh Snuff

Barker's Powder Old Sachem Bitters

Barney's Cocoa Castorine Oxien Health Tablets

Dr. Brown's Male Fern Vermifuge Paine's Celery Compound

Dr. Brown's Renovating Pills Park Obesity Pills

Dr John Bull's Cough Syrup Parkers Tonic

California Waters of Life Peruna

Celery-Cola Pink Pills for Pale People

Colden's Liquid Beef Tonic Prickly Ash Bitters

Doyle's Bitters Rich's Tasteless Chill Tonic & King of Malaria

Duffey's Pure Malt Whiskey Roger's Liverwort Tar

Father John's Medicine Shaker Extract of Roots

Gilbert & Parsons Hygienic Whiskey Smith's Asthma Cure

Healey's Liver Pad Syrup of Figs

Henry's Magnesia Tiger Fat

Hostetter's Celebrated Stomach Bitters Dr. Townsend's Cholera Balm

Indian Cough Cure Turlington's Balsam of Life

Kickapoo Indian Oil Tutt's Pills for Tired Liver

Kidder's Cordial Vegetine

Kurakoff Vital Sparks

Luciana Cordial

Dr. Leeson's Tiger Oil Warm Springs Consumption Cure

Mexican Mustang Liniment

Moffat's Bitter's

Murray's Specific

Nez Perce Catarrh Snuff

Oxien Health Tablets

Paine's Celery Compound

Parker's Tonic


Pink Pills For Pale People

Prickly Ash Bitters

Rich's Tasteless Chill Tonic & King of Malaria

Roger's Liverwort Tar

Simmons Liver Regulator

Smith's Asthma Cure

Syrup of Figs

Tiger Fat

Dr. Townsend's Cholera Balm

Turlington's Balsam of Life


Vital Sparks

Warm Springs Consumption Cure

Warner's Safe Kidney and Liver Cure

Webber's Magic Compound

Wilson's Panacea

Old West Patent Medicine Photo Gallery - Tonics, Cure-Alls, Salves

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Traveling Medicine Men of the Old WestLydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound TonicLydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound TonicHostetter's Bitters TonicParker's TonicTraveling Medicine Show of the Old WestTraveling Medicine Men of the Old West
Traveling Medicine Men of the Old West
Traveling Medicine Men of the Old West
Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound Tonic
Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound Tonic
Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound Tonic
Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound Tonic
Hostetter's Bitters Tonic
Hostetter's Bitters Tonic
Parker's Tonic
Parker's Tonic
Traveling Medicine Show of the Old West
Traveling Medicine Show of the Old West
Traveling Medicine Men of the Old West
Traveling Medicine Men of the Old West
Traveling Medicine Show
Traveling Medicine Show

Traveling Medicine Shows

The Frontiers Entertainment!

Along with the Traveling Medicine men and their tonics, were their entertaining medicine shows. The pioneers and cowboys living in the scattered towns were very much deprived of entertainment. The shows were a natural draw.

The shows typically opened with banjo or piano music, then proceeded with variety acts, minstrel skits, and sing-alongs, followed by the medicine man's sales pitch. This cycle continued until the crowd thinned out; promising more entertainment after the sales period kept audience members in their seats. Other popular medicine show attractions included sword swallowers, fire eaters, tumblers, fortunetellers, flea circuses, magicians, strongmen, and buxom female singers.

"Muscle man" acts were especially popular on these tours, for this enabled the salesman to tout the physical vigor offered by the potion he was selling. The showmen frequently employed shills, who would step forward from the crowd and offer "unsolicited" testimonials about the benefits of the medicine for sale. Often, the nostrum was manufactured and bottled in the same wagon in which the show traveled. The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company became one of the largest and most successful medicine show operators. Their shows had an American Indian or Wild West theme, and employed many Native Americans as spokespeople.

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      Myreda Johnson 

      6 years ago from Ohio USA

      Interesting and entertaining. Well done!

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      6 years ago

      This is a very interesting website and it provides info for my research project so thankyou very much!!!

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      7 years ago

      What a fun lens,thanks for your effort in putting this together.

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      7 years ago

      Well written lens, a good reference for information.


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