Feeling under the weather this winter? A stuffy head and runny nose probably sends you to the drugstore for decongestants and cough drops. A hundred years ago you might have bought bitters or celery malt. Not only would these medicines have claimed to cure your cold but also your arthritis, baldness, athlete’s foot, bunions and asthma. All without advertising on TV, no less!
When compared to today, medical treatment in the 19th century was little more than a guessing game. However, the Victorians did have a firm grasp on anatomy and the functions of the body. As the 19th century wore on, the medical community realized that the treatment of bodily ailments could become as exact a science as knowledge of the anatomy, and began manufacturing medicines to cure various diseases. Great strides were taken in the field of pharmacology. Various drugs, including morphine, quinine, atropine, digitalis, codeine and iodine, were discovered and concocted and bottled. Doctors knew of many diseases and were quite adept at prescribing the correct medications to cure the ailment. However, there were some who turned bogus medicines into money makers. These “medicines” were referred to as “patent medicines.”
“Patent medicine” refers to products that were marketed as medicines claiming to cure a whole host of diseases or ailments. Many of the diseases these medicines claimed to cure still have no cure today – cancer and diabetes, for example. Given that these medicines often did no good, why did so many people buy them? In the 19th century, access to doctors was somewhat limited, especially in rural areas. Doctors were often expensive and it could involve a several-days trip just to see one. Self-medicating, by buying medicine at the general store, was a much easier and less expensive option.
Although patent medicines existed before the American Revolution, they did not become widely popular until the mid-19th century. There are two reasons for the explosion of these cures at this time. First, the passage of patent legislation by Congress, and second, the growth in the number of daily newspapers.
Patent legislation provided a way for manufacturers to protect their product against counterfeiters. However, many manufacturers chose not to patent the formula of the medicine (which meant that they had to disclose the ingredients) and instead patented the shape of the bottle, the promotional materials they used or their label design. At the same time, the newspaper industry was booming. In order to compete with other newspapers, many dropped their prices. This led to a price war. To recover revenue lost from their dirt-cheap subscription prices, newspapers sought income through paid advertisements. Patent medicines lent themselves very well to newsprint where they blended with the sensationalized news stories.
Most patent medicines contained alcohol; in fact, many of them contained nothing but alcohol. In addition, many of the medicines contained vegetable extracts and sugar which gave each brand a unique flavor and color. The remedies were also sometimes laced with narcotics – cocaine, caffeine, opium or morphine. The Sears catalog, for example, sold a morphine-laced mixture intended to be slipped into a husband’s coffee that was guaranteed to keep him home nights. Considering their contents, it was no wonder that people who took patent medicines did feel some relief! Because of their dangerous ingredients, many bored housewives and home-bound elderly were highly susceptible to becoming addicts.
One of the most successful patent medicines – and one that is still on the market – is Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. Mrs. Pinkham became interested in home remedies after the deaths of several family members. In her grief, she turned to alternative forms of heal