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Patent medicine

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Patent medicine

E.W. Kemble's "Death's Laboratory" in Collier's in 1906

Patent medicines are compounds promoted and sold as medical cures that do not work as promoted. "Patent medicine" is a misnomer since in most cases, although products might be trademarked, they are not patented (the patent process requires proof that something new has been discovered). In ancient times, patent medicine was sometimes called nostrum remedium ("our remedy" in Latin).

The promotion of patent medicines was one of the first major products highlighted by the advertising industry, and many advertising and sales techniques were pioneered by patent medicine promoters.[1] Patent medicine advertising often promoted the advantages of exotic ingredients, even though their actual effects came from more prosaic drugs. One group of patent medicines — liniments that allegedly contained snake oil, supposedly a panacea — made snake oil salesman a lasting synonym for a charlatan.

Patent medicines and advertising

Mugwump, an invented name

The phrase "patent medicine" comes from the late 17th century[2] marketing of medical elixirs, when those who found favour with royalty were issued letters patent authorising the use of the royal endorsement in advertising. Few if any of the nostrums were actually patented; chemical patents did not come into use in the United States until 1925. Furthermore, patenting one of these remedies would have meant publicly disclosing its ingredients, which most promoters sought to avoid.

Instead, the compounders of such nostrums used a primitive version of branding to distinguish their products from the crowd of their competitors. Many familiar names from the era live on today in brands such as Luden's cough drops, Lydia E. Pinkham's vegetable compound for women, Fletcher's Castoria and even Angostura bitters, which was once marketed as a stomachic. Though sold at high prices, many of these products were made from cheap ingredients. Their composition was well known within the pharmacy trade, and druggists manufactured and sold (for a slightly lower price) medicines of almost identical composition. To protect profits, the branded medicine advertisements emphasized brand names, and urged the public to, "...accept no substitutes."

At least in the earliest days, the history of patent medicines is coextensive with scientific medicine. Empirical medicine, and the beginning of the application of the scientific method to medicine, began to yield a few orthodoxly acceptable herbal and mineral drugs for the physician's arsenal. These few remedies, on the other hand, were inadequate to cover the bewildering variety of diseases and symptoms. Beyond these patches of evidence-based application, people used other methods, such as occultism; the "doctrine of signatures" — essentially, the application of sympathetic magic to pharmacology — held that nature had hidden clues to medically effective drugs in their resemblances to the human body and its parts. This led medical men to hope, at least, that, say, walnut shells might be good for skull fractures. Given the state of the pharmacopoeia, and patients' demands for something to take, physicians began making "blunderbuss" concoctions of various drugs, proven and unproven. These concoctions were the ancestors of the several nostrums.

Touting these nostrums was one of the first major projects of the advertising industry. The marketing of nostrums under implausible claims has a long history. In Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749), allusion is made to the sale of medical compounds claimed to be universal panaceas:

As to Squire Western, he was seldom out of the sick-room, unless when he was engaged either in the field or over his bottle. Nay, he would sometimes retire hither to take his beer, and it was not without difficulty that he was prevented from forcing Jones to take his beer too: for no quack ever held his nostrum to be a more general panacea than he did this; which, he said, had more virtue in it than was in all the physic in an apothecary's shop.
Lydia Pinkham's Herb Medicine (circa 1875) remains on the market today.

Within the English-speaking world, patent medicines are as old as journalism. "Anderson's Pills" were first made in England in the 1630s; the recipe was allegedly learned in Venice by a Scot who claimed to be physician to King Charles I. Daffy's Elixir was invented about 1647 and remained popular in Britain and the USA until the late 19th century. The use of "letters patent" to obtain exclusive marketing rights to certain labelled formulas and their marketing fueled the circulation of early newspapers. The use of invented names began early. In 1726 a patent was also granted to the makers of "Dr. Bateman's Pectoral Drops"; at least on the documents that survive, there was no Dr. Bateman. This was the enterprise of a Benjamin Okell and a group of promoters who owned a warehouse and a print shop to promote the product.

A number of American institutions owe their existence to the patent medicine industry, most notably a number of the older almanacs, which were originally given away as promotional items by patent medicine manufacturers. Perhaps the most successful industry that grew up out of the business of patent medicine advertisements, though, was founded by William H. Gannett in Maine in 1866. There were few circulating newspapers in Maine in that era, so Gannett founded a periodical, Comfort, whose chief purpose was to propose the merits of Oxien, a nostrum made from the fruit of the baobab tree, to the rural folks of Maine. Gannett's newspaper became the first publication of Guy Gannett Communications, which eventually owned four Maine dailies and several television stations. (The family-owned firm is unrelated to the Gannett Corporation that publishes USA Today.) An early pioneer in the use of advertising to promote patent medicine was New York businessman Benjamin Brandreth, whose "Vegetable Universal Pill" eventually became one of the best-selling patent medicines in the United States.[3] “…A congressional committee in 1849 reported that Brandreth was the nation’s largest proprietary advertiser… Between 1862 and 1863 Brandreth’s average annual gross income surpassed $600,000…”[4] For fifty years Brandreth’s name was a household word in the United States[5] Indeed, the Brandreth pills were so well known they received mention in Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick.[6]

Kickapoo Indian "Sagwa", sold at medicine shows

Another publicity method—undertaken mostly by smaller firms—was the medicine show, a traveling circus of sorts that offered vaudeville-style entertainments on a small scale, and climaxed in a pitch for some sort of cure-all nostrum. "Muscle man" acts were especially popular on these tours, for this enabled the salesman to tout the physical vigour the product supposedly offered. The showmen frequently employed shills, who stepped forward from the crowd to offer "unsolicited" testimonials about the benefits of the medicine. Often, the nostrum was manufactured and bottled in the wagon in which the show travelled. 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 American Indians as spokespeople. The "medicine show" lived on in American folklore and Western movies long after they vanished from public life.

Ingredients and their uses

Sick Made Well, Weak Made Strong, Elixir of Life, etc. Typical ad for patent medicine.

Supposed ingredients

Kilmer's Swamp Root

Some level of exoticism and mystery in the contents of the preparation was deemed desirable by their promoters. Unlikely ingredients such as the baobab fruit in Oxien were a recurring theme. A famous patent medicine of the period was Dr. Kilmer's Swamp Root; unspecified roots found in swamps had remarkable effects on the kidneys, according to its literature.

Native American themes were also useful: natives, imagined to be noble savages, were thought to be in tune with nature, and heirs to a body of traditional lore about herbal remedies and natural cures. One example of this approach from the period was Kickapoo Indian Sagwa, a product of the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company of Connecticut (completely unrelated to the real Kickapoo Indian tribe of Oklahoma), supposedly based on a Native American recipe. This nostrum was the inspiration for Al Capp's "Kickapoo Joy Juice," featured in the comic strip, "Li'l Abner". Another benefit of claiming traditional native origins was that it was nearly impossible to disprove. A good example of this is the story behind Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills, which was the mainstay of the Comstock patent medicine business. According to text on a wrapper on every box of pills, Dr. Morse was a trained medical doctor who enriched his education by travelling extensively throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe. He supposedly lived among the American Indians for three years, during which time he discovered the healing properties of various plants and roots that he eventually combined into Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills. No one knows if Dr. Morse ever actually existed.

Other promoters took an opposite tack from timeless herbal wisdom. Nearly any scientific discovery or exotic locale could inspire a key ingredient or principle in a patent medicine. Consumers were invited to invoke the power of electromagnetism to heal their ailments. In the nineteenth century, electricity and radio were gee-whiz scientific advances that found their way into patent medicine advertising, especially after Luigi Galvani showed that electricity influenced the muscles. Devices meant to electrify the body were sold; nostrums were compounded that purported to attract electrical energy or make the body more conductive. "Violet ray machines" were sold as rejuvenation devices, and balding men could seek solace in an "electric fez" purported to regrow hair. Albert Abrams was a well known practitioner of electrical quackery, claiming the ability to diagnose and treat diseases over long distances by radio. In 1913 the quack John R. Brinkley, calling himself an "Electro Medic Doctor," began injecting men with colored water as a virility cure, claiming it was "electric medicine from Germany." (Brinkley would go on to even greater infamy through transplanting goat testicles into men's scrotums as a virility treatment.)

Towards the end of the period, a number of radioactive medicines, containing uranium or radium, were marketed. These apparently actually contained the ingredients promised, and there were a number of tragedies among their devotees. Most notoriously, steel heir Eben McBurney Byers was a supporter of the popular radium water Radithor, developed by the medical con artist William J. A. Bailey. Byers contracted fatal radium poisoning and had to have his jaw removed in an unsuccessful attempt to save him from bone cancer after drinking nearly 1400 bottles of Bailey's "radium water." Water irradiators were sold that promised to infuse water placed within them with radon, which was thought to be healthy at the time.

Actual ingredients

Contrary to what is often believed, some patent medicines did, in fact, deliver the promised results, albeit with very dangerous ingredients. For example, medicines advertised as "infant soothers" contained opium, and those advertised as "catarrh snuff" contained cocaine. While various herbs, touted or alluded to, were talked up in the advertising, their actual effects often came from procaine extracts or grain alcohol. Those containing opiates were at least effective in relieving pain, coughs, and diarrhea, though they could result in addiction. This hazard was sufficiently well known that many were advertised as causing none of the harmful effects of opium (though many of those so advertised actually did contain opium).

Until the twentieth century, alcohol was the most controversial ingredient, for it was widely recognised that the "medicines" could continue to be sold for their alleged curative properties even in prohibition states and counties. Many of the medicines were in fact liqueurs of various sorts, flavoured with herbs said to have medicinal properties. Some examples include:

  • Cannabis indica, the low growing variants of cannabis with a high level of THC.
  • Peruna was a famous "Prohibition tonic," weighing in at around 18% grain alcohol. A nostrum known as "nerve agents. Unwary imbibers suffered a form of paralysis that came to be known as jake-leg.
  • Some herbal preparations included laxatives such as senna or diuretics, to give the compounds some obvious physical effects. Narcotics and stimulants at least had the virtue of making the people who took them feel better.

When journalists and physicians began focusing on the narcotic contents of the patent medicines, some of their makers began substituting acetanilide, a particularly toxic non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug, discovered in 1886, for the laudanum they used to contain. This ingredient change probably killed more of the nostrum's users than the narcotics did, since the acetanilide was toxic to the liver and kidneys.

Supposed uses

Bonnore's Electro Magnetic Bathing Fluid was claimed to help many unrelated ailments.

Patent medicines were supposedly able to cure just about everything. Nostrums were openly sold that claimed to cure or prevent venereal diseases, tuberculosis, and cancer. Bonnore's Electro Magnetic Bathing Fluid claimed to cure cholera, neuralgia, epilepsy, scarlet fever, necrosis, mercurial eruptions, paralysis, hip diseases, chronic abscesses, and "female complaints". William Radam's Microbe Killer, a product sold widely on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1890s and early 1900s, had the bold claim 'Cures All Diseases' prominently embossed on the front of the bottle. Ebeneezer Sibley ('Dr Sibley') in late 18th and early 19th century Britain went so far as to advertise that his Solar Tincture was able to "restore life in the event of sudden death", amongst other marvels.

Every manufacturer published long lists of testimonials that described their product curing all sorts of human ailments. Fortunately for both makers and users, the illnesses they claimed were cured were almost invariably self-diagnosed—and the claims of the writers to have been healed of cancer or tuberculosis by the nostrum should be considered in this light.

The end of the patent medicine era

Clark Stanley's Snake Oil Liniment.

Muckraker journalists and other investigators began to publicize instances of death, drug addiction, and other hazards from the compounds. This took some small courage on behalf of the publishing industry that circulated these claims, since the typical newspaper of the period relied heavily on the patent medicines. In 1905, Samuel Hopkins Adams published an exposé entitled "The Great American Fraud" in Collier's Weekly that led to the passage of the first Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.[7] This statute did not ban the alcohol, narcotics, and stimulants in the medicines; it required them to be labeled as such, and curbed some of the more misleading, overstated, or fraudulent claims that appeared on the labels. In 1936 the statute was revised to ban them, and the United States entered a long period of ever more drastic reductions in the medications available unmediated by physicians and prescriptions. Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, who was active in the first half of the 20th century, based much of his career on exposing quacks and driving them out of business.

The patent medicine makers moved from selling nostrums to selling deodorants and toothpastes, which continued to be advertised using the same techniques that had proven themselves selling nostrums for tuberculosis and "female complaints." One survival of the herbal exoticism that once characterized the patent medicine industry is the marketing of shampoos, which are often promoted as containing perfumes such as vetiver or ylang-ylang, and foods such as mangoes, bananas, or honey; consumers are urged to put these ingredients in their hair despite lack of any evidence that these ingredients do anything other than make the hair smell like the ingredients.

In more recent years, also, various herbal concoctions have been marketed as "nutritional supplements". While their advertisements are careful not to cross the line into making explicit medical claims, and often bear a disclaimer that asserts that the products have not been tested and are not intended to diagnose or treat any disease, they are nevertheless marketed as remedies of various sorts. Weight loss "while you sleep" and similar claims are frequently found on these compounds (cf., Calorad, Relacore, etc.). One of the most notorious such elixirs, however, calls itself "Enzyte", widely advertised for "natural male enhancement" — that is, penis enlargement. Despite being a compound of herbs, minerals, and vitamins, Enzyte formerly promoted itself under a fake scientific name Suffragium asotas. Enzyte's makers translate this phrase as "better sex," but it is in fact ungrammatical Latin for "refuge for the dissipated".[8]

Surviving consumer products from the patent medicine era

A number of brands of consumer products that date from the patent medicine era are still on the market and available today. Their ingredients may have changed from the original formulas; the claims made for the benefits they offer have typically been seriously revised. These brands include:

A horse drawn Bromo Seltzer wagon.

A number of patent medicines are produced in China. Among the best known of these is Shou Wu Chih, a black, alcoholic liquid that the makers claimed turned gray hair black.

Products no longer sold under medicinal claims

Some consumer products were once marketed as patent medicines, but have been repurposed and are no longer sold for medicinal purposes. Their original ingredients may have been changed to remove drugs, as was done with Coca-Cola. The compound may also simply be used in a different capacity, as in the case of Angostura Bitters, now associated chiefly with cocktails.

See also

Receipt from 1900 for a patent medicine claiming a "Positive Cure for Dyspepsia, Heartburn, Gastritis, Threatened Cancer and all Stomach Troubles" with "Relief in five minutes."


  1. ^ See Conroy, (2009), passim. for an account of E. Virgil Neal, patent medicine manufacturer and promoter (e.g., the tonic, nuxated iron, which was supposedly used by Ty Cobb, Jack Dempsey, and Pope Benedict XV), Madison Avenue pioneer, and mentor of Carl R. Byoir.
  2. ^ NMAH | Object Groups
  3. ^ Atwater, Edward (2004). An Annotated Catalogue of the Edward C. Atwater Collection of American. New York:  
  4. ^ Atwater, Edward (2004). An Annotated Catalogue of the Edward C. Atwater Collection of American. New York:  
  5. ^ White, James Terry (1895). The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography. United States:  
  6. ^ Melville, Herman (1892). Moby-Dick; Or, The White Whale. Boston:  
  7. ^  
  8. ^ "Why is this man smiling? It's not Viagra". USA Today. 2002-04-17. Retrieved 2010-05-21. 

Further reading

  • Conroy, M.S., The Cosmetics Baron You've Never Heard Of: E. Virgil Neal and Tokalon, Altus History LLC, (Englewood), 2009. ISBN 0-615-27278-9
  • American Medical Association, Council On Pharmacy and Chemistry (1908). The Propaganda For Reform In Proprietary Medicines (5th edition). Chicago: American Medical Association Press. Retrieved 2009-08-23. 
  • American Medical Association (1912). Nostrums and Quackery: Articles On The Nostrum Evil and Quackery Reprinted, With Additions and Modifications From The Journal Of The American Medical Association Reprinted (2nd ed.). Chicago: American Medical Association Press. Retrieved 2009-08-23. 
  • American Medical Association (1915). Medical Mail-Order Frauds. Chicago: American Medical Association Press. Retrieved 2009-08-23. 
  • Armstrong, David and Elizabeth M., The Great American Medicine Show, (New York, Prentice-Hall, 1991) ISBN 0-13-364027-2
  • Crabtre, Addison Darre (1880). The Funny Side Of Physic: Or, Mysteries Of Medicine, Presenting The Humorous And Serious Sides of Medical Practice. An Expose of Medical Humbugs, Quacks, And Charlatans In All Ages And All Countries. Chapter III. Patent Medicines.. Hartford: The J. B. Burr Publishing Co. pp. 78–98. Retrieved 2009-08-23. 
  • Holbrook, Stewart A., The Golden Age of Quackery, (Boston: MacMillan & Co., 1959)
  • Oleson, Charles W. (1889). Secret Nostrums And Systems Of Medicine: A Book of Formulas (7th edition, 1896). Chicago: Oleson & Co., Publishers. Retrieved 2009-08-23. 
  • Pierce, R. V., The People's Common Sense Medical Adviser, eighty-third edition (World's Dispensary, 1917), available from Project Gutenberg
  • The Proprietary Association (1908). Facts Worth Knowing: Falsehoods Exposed, The Truth About Patent Medicines,Mercenary And Selfish Character of Attack On Popular Household Remedies by Yellow Journals And Doctors' Organizations.. The Proprietary Association. Retrieved 2009-08-23. 
  • Shaw, Robert B., 'History of the Comstock Patent Medicine Business and Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills, (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1972)
  • "Balm of America: Patent Medicine Collection," National Museum of American History

External links

  • Dr. Bob's Homepage for Medical Quackery
  • Here Today, Here Tomorrow: Varieties of Medical Ephemera at the National Library of Medicine
  • The Great American Fraud online exhibit at Vanderbilt Medical Library. Contains an etext of two of the Samuel Hopkins Adams exposés.
  • The Toadstool Millionaires by James Harvey Young (1961), reproduced at Quackwatch by permission of Princeton University Press
  • History of the Comstock Patent Medicine Business and Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills by Robert B. Shaw
  • Barak Orbach's Quack and Patent Medicine Collection
  • Patent Medicine from Dr. J. C. Ayer & Co Photographs of products from the J. C. Ayer Company
  • Patent Medicine Cards, a gallery of 247 patent medicine advertising cards, at UCLA library
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