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 healing and was especially interested in a medicine that could cure the ills of suffering women.
Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound first hit the market in 1875. The medicine came from a recipe she received as payment for a debt owed her husband. As her family was in severe economic trouble, she began heavily marketing the product. It was widely advertised in newspapers and women’s magazines. Playing to the female crowd, the ads often spoke of the pain and suffering of being a woman. The ads featured glowing testimonials from women who claimed to have been healed from all sorts of ailments. The company gathered these testimonials from women encouraged to write to Mrs. Pinkham with the following line from her ads: “Any woman…is responsible for her own suffering who will not take the trouble to write to Mrs. Pinkham for advice.” Many women did write to her with complete confidence in her product and the medical advice they received.
When Mrs. Pinkham died in 1883, the company did not bother to tell consumers of her death. Instead, they continued to lead customers to believe that Mrs. Pinkham herself was still giving them medical advice in response to their letters. The “write to Mrs. Pinkham” ruse was exposed in 1905 when the Ladies’ Home Journal published a photograph of Lydia Pinkham’s tombstone along with an article questioning the quality of medical advice being dispensed by a woman who had been dead for 22 years. When it was discovered that her daughter-in-law, Jennie Pinkham, was actually the one responding to the letters, the company stated that it never implied that Lydia herself was answering the letters. This explanation was soon exposed as a lie by a journalist for Collier’s Weekly, who reported that the Pinkham Company employed a battery of typists to answer women’s health inquiries with form letters. Most of the letters suggested that what the woman needed was more Vegetable Compound to solve her ailment.
Soon, doctors began to speak out against the patent medicine industry. Beginning on October 7, 1905, Collier’s Weekly published a series of articles entitled “The Great American Fraud” which brought the dangers of patent medicines to the forefront. In its opening paragraph the series stated:
Gullible America will spend this year some seventy-five millions of dollars in
the purchase of patent medicines. In consideration of this sum it will swallow
huge quantities of alcohol, an appalling amount of opiates and narcotics, a
wide assortment of varied drugs ranging from powerful and dangerous heart
depressants to insidious liver stimulants; and, in excess of all other ingredients,
undiluted fraud. For fraud, exploited by the skillfulness of advertising bunco
medicine, is the basis of the trade. Should the newspapers, the magazines and the
medical journals refuse their pages to this class of advertisement, the patent
medicine business in five years would be as scandalously historic as the South
Sea Bubble, and the nation would be richer not only in lives and money, but
In drunkards and drug-fiends saved.
The scathing articles went on to substantiate their claim that the patent medicine industry was little more than a money-making fraud. The articles exposed fake testimonials and false advertisements, and quoted legitimate medical professionals, health boards and medical analyses. Readers were shocked and outraged at the patent medicine industry.
By the end of the century, public opinion about federal regulation changed, with Americans favoring laws to force manufacturers to disclose more about the ingredients used in the concoctions. These laws encountered fierce opposition from medicine manufacturers. However, in 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act. The act forced the makers of patent medicines to disclose the ingredients used in their products. For the first time, users of these products – most of whom were non-drinkers – discovered exactly how much alcohol they were unwittingly consuming. Pinkham’s, for example, was 15 percent alcohol. Many consumers were stunned.
The Pure Food and Drug Act also forced manufacturers to scale back the claim for cures on labels. No longer could patent medicines proclaim to cure everything from athlete’s foot to ba