The labels carried wild promises but no list of ingredients. Patent medicines were ubiquitous in the 1800s, partly because medical science had made advances and partly because the search for health exceeded medical science's capabilities.
These elixirs, creams, and compresses were made from any number of ingredients, ranging from vegetable juice to narcotics. Remember, there were no drug laws in the USA until after the turn of the 20th Century. When a patient took a dose of patent medicine, he or she could be taking opium, alcohol, mandrake, belladonna, marijuana, or extracts from hellebore, henbane, datura, and hemlock.
The term "patent medicine" refers to a product with a proprietary list of ingredients and sold directly to the public, not that the medicine was patented. Some of these products originated as old family recipes, but some manufacturers were a bit more mercenary in the development of their tonics. The quest for the almighty dollar soon surpassed any anecdotal or scientific basis for these medicines, and the patent medicine business became a huge economic force.
Tired of Viagra ads? Believe me, these ads certainly aren't new. Here's one of my favorite patent medicine ads, taken from The Owyhee Avalanche in the 1880s:
LOST MANHOOD RESTORED
THE DR. LIEBIG Private Dispensary
400 Geary St. San Francisco, Cal
Conducted by qualified physicians and surgeons--regular graduates. The Oldest Specialists in the United States, whose LIFE-LONG EXPERIENCE, perfect method and pure medicine, insure SPEEDY and PERMANENT CURES of all Private Chronic and Nervous Diseases. Affections of the Blood, Skin, Kidneys, Bladder, Eruptions, Ulcers, Old Sores, Swelling of the Glands, Sore Mouth, Throat, permanently cured and eradicated from the system for life. NERVOUS Debility, Impotency, Seminal Losses, Sexual Decay, Mental and Physical Weakness, Failing Memory, Weak Eyes, Stunted Development, Impediments to Marriage, etc. from excesses or youthful follies, or any cause, speedily, safely and privately cured.
Young, Middle-Aged and Old men, and all who need medical skill and experience, consult the old European Physician at once. His opinion costs nothing and may save future misery and shame. When inconvenient to visit the city for treatment, medicines can be sent everywhere by express, free from observation. It is self-evident that a physician who gives his whole attention to a class of diseases attains great skill, and physicians throughout the country, knowing this, frequently recommend difficult cases to the Oldest Specialist, by whom every Known good remedy is used. The Doctor's Age and experience make his opinion of Supreme Importance.
...and it goes on and on!
The patent medicine industry was brought to its knees shortly after the turn of the 20th Century. From the Food and Drug Administration:
A few muckraking journalists helped expose the red clauses, the false testimonials, the nostrums laden with harmful ingredients, the unfounded cures for cancer, tuberculosis, syphilis, narcotic addiction, and a host of other serious as well as self-limited diseases. The most influential work in this genre was the series by Samuel Hopkins Adams that appeared in Collier's on October 7, 1905, entitled "The Great American Fraud." Adams published ten articles in the series, which concluded in February 1906; he followed it up with another series on doctors who advertised fake clinics. The shocking stories of the patent medicine menace were accompanied by startling images, such as "Death's Laboratory."Good health to you!
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