Let’s Talk History – Tonics of Yesta’Year

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%.

Patent medicines are those sold with heavy promotion as medical cures, but which 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.

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.

Below are some examples of Old West Snake Oil’s and an Advert –

The phrase “patent medicine” comes from the late 17th century marketing of medical elixirs, when those who found favour with royalty were issued letters patentauthorising 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 would sell (For a slightly Lower Price) medicines of almost identical composition which they had manufactured themselves. To protect profits, the branded medicine advertisements laid great emphasis on the brand names, and urged the public to accept no substitutes.

                    – Advert , E.W. Kemble’s “Death’s Laboratory” in Collier’s in 1906 –

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 thescientific 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.

Howards Blues Cure –

Beyond these patches of evidence-based application, people used other methods, such asoccultism; 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.

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-

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.

Another method of publicity undertaken mostly by smaller firms was the “medicine show,” a traveling circus of sorts which offered vaudeville-style entertainments on a small scale, and which climaxed in a pitch for the nostrum being sold. “Muscle man” acts were especially popular on these tours, for this enabled the salesman to tout the physical vigour offered by the potion he was selling.

-Kickapoo Indian “Sagwa”, sold at medicine shows –

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. The “medicine show” lived on in American folklore and Western movies long after they had vanished from public meeting places. 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.

-Swamp Root Advert –

   Promoters took an opposite tack from timeless herbal wisdom. Just about any scientific discovery or exotic locale could be used as a key ingredient 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.

-Luigi Galvani –

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. 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 waterRadithor, 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.

Contrary to what is often believed, many 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, 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.)

Catarrh Snuff-

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 inprohibition states and counties. Many of the medicines were in fact liqueurs of various sorts, flavoured with herbs said to have medicinal properties. Peruna was a famous “Prohibition tonic,” weighing in at around 18% grain alcohol. A nostrum known as “Jamaican ginger” was ordered to change its formula by Prohibition officials. To fool a chemical test some vendors added a toxic chemical, cresyl phosphate, an organophosphate compound that had effects similar to a nerve agent. Unwary imbibers suffered a form of paralysis that came to be known as jake-leg. Some included laxatives such assenna or diuretics, in order to give the compounds some obvious medical effects. The narcotics and stimulants at least had the virtue of making the people who took them feel better, and in the eyes of the advertisers this was scored as a “cure.”

Jake-Leg – A paralysis caused by drinking improperly distilled or contaminated liquor..

( Jamaica Ginger )

Clark Stanley, the “Rattlesnake King”, produced Stanley’s snake oil, publicly processing rattlesnakes at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. His liniment, when seized and tested by the federal government in 1917, was found to contain mineral oil, 1% fatty oil, red pepper, turpentine and camphor. This is not too unlike modern capsaicin and camphor liniments.

Clark Stanley Things –

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. 

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, which founded the U.S. advertising industry. In 1905, Samuel Hopkins Adams published an exposé entitled “The Great American Fraud” in Collier’s Weekly that led to the passage of the firstPure Food and Drug Act in 1906.

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.

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:

  • 666 Cold Medicine
  • Absorbine Jr.
  • Anacin/Anadin
  • Andrews Liver Salts
  • Aspro aspirin tablets
  • Bayer Aspirin
  • BC Powder
  • Bromo-Seltzer
  • Carter’s Little Liver Pills (Currently sold as Carter’s Little Pills)
  • Chlorodyne
  • Doan’s Pills
  • Fletcher’s Castoria
  • Geritol
  • Goody’s Powder
  • Lobeila Cough Syrup
  • Lorman’s Indian Oil
  • Luden’s Throat Drops
  • Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound
  • Minard’s Liniment
  • Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia
  • Smith Brothers Throat Drops
  • Vicks Vapo Rub

Hope you enjoyed the info about these AMAZING MEDS, but please do not USE THEM… Go see a real doctor!


About trovegeneralstore

TROVE GENERAL EST.2010 Trove General, located in Paoli, Pennsylvania, is a men's and women's clothing and accessories store, with a curated collection of home wares, books and apothecary. Stocking brands that value quality and craftsmanship, Trove merges aesthetic and authenticity with heritage brands such as Belstaff, Pendleton, Woolrich, Filson, Blundstone, and Dubarry, while also aiming to constantly introduce fresh brands and ideas suited for an outdoor lifestyle. Harkening back to the days of the original general store, Trove is rooted in it's location and community.. A place meant to make life simpler and more enjoyable. Welcomed feedback or inquires please email info@trovegeneral.com. 19 Paoli Shopping Center Paoli, PA 19301 Monday-Saturday: 10-5 Sunday: 12-5 P~ 484.320.8626
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2 Responses to Let’s Talk History – Tonics of Yesta’Year

  1. Gus Friehe says:

    Milk of magnesia does offer some results as an acne cure. This substance may be employed as a topical anti acne solution and works well for people with oily skin. Milk of magnesia is primarily of alkaline nature. Applying this to your skin helps remove over the top oils from the skin surface. It must be observed that it is over the top sebum that is the root cause of acne. Thus, milk of magnesia deals with the first cause of acne and controls those breakouts. What’s more, milk of magnesia also has antibacterial properties and works as a disinfectant also. It helps destroy acne causing organisms known as P acne. It also forestalls the infection from extending to other areas on the face while also limiting it from further irritating the skin. The substance also helps fade minor scarring and reduces the appearance of acne scars and blemishes too.,

    Our favorite website

    • Hi Carol! Have you tried contacting Pendleton directly? They are usually very helpful. I would think that would be your best bet. They’re 1-800 customer service number is listed on their website. Good luck!

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