Sep 30, 2022
As a lifelong lover of history, hype and hoax, it was inevitable that sooner or later I’d read about patent medicines. It turned out it happened sooner.
As I recall, I stumbled across an article on them in The Old Farmer’s Almanac when I was a pre-teen. What first caught my attention was pictures above the article of patent medicine posters and labels. For reasons I never figured out, even as a little kid I loved old time graphics and lettering (which, now that I think about it, may have attracted me to the almanac in the first place).
But graphics aside, once I read the medicines’ claims, I became entranced with their brazenness and bumpf: Whatever the nostrum, it claimed a sure cure for everything from crabs to catarrh, from hemorrhoids to hematomachrosis, and for everything in between.
Of course, they cured nothing, except maybe insatiable curiosity. Even worse, in too many cases, they left the customer far worse off than before they’d tried them.
Patent medicines started in England and were so named because they got a letter of patent from the Crown. It wasn’t a patent like we think of it, going through all kinds of scrutiny and having all the ingredients on the label. Instead, it just meant that maker had a monopoly on that formula, whatever it was, and later it referred to all pre-packaged meds sold over the counter.
In the U.S., when it came to patent medicine ingredients, all bets were off. So while the public was abundantly aware of the medicine’s claims, they were wholly ignorant of what they were pouring down their gaping maws. And damned good thing too, since the last time I checked with my friendly neighborhood toxicologist, I was told in no uncertain terms that kerosene (one ingredient in Hamlen’s Wizard Oil, a popular patent medicine) was not to be taken internally, even if artfully disguised by flavorings.
The patent medicine hucksters didn’t rely on labels, posters, or newspaper and magazine ads alone, but spread their word through medicine shows. These were traveling entertainments that had any combination of music, song, ventriloquism, magic, juggling — you name it — to draw in the rubes. After that, the barkers took over, hustling their wares with promises as unlimited as they were unfounded.
The biggest and best known medicine show company was the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company. At their peak, they had almost 100 shows beating the bushes (and the yokels) all over the Eastern United States.
The Kickapoo’s essential con was their product contained ingredients used by Kickapoo healers, allegedly famous for their surefire healing powers. To reinforce their claims of authenticity, each show had a retinue of Native Americans, in full tribal dress. And while the Natives were real, none of them were Kickapoos (who lived in Oklahoma), but were much more readily-available Iroquois, with a few Plains Native Americans scattered here and there.
In all fairness, given the status of 19th century medicine, taking patent medicines may have been no worse than being under a doctor’s care. And because a lot of the medicines were loaded with alcohol and opiates, they probably lessened pain, even if they didn’t cure anything or increase life expectancy.
The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 tolled the death knell for patent medicines, and by the 1920s, aside from a few hangers-on, they had all faded into the mists of history.
Medical miracles — of one ilk or another
Once the 20th century started rockin’, true medical miracles did come on the scene. But they were due to vaccinations, antisepsis and antibiotics, not Professor Krueger’s Serpent Head Oil Elixer and Tricopherous.
Yes, science had finally supplanted superstition.
Or had it?
Now, an interesting twist.
As 20th century medicine progressed and seemingly-miraculous cures took place, doctors and the scientists behind them became the new gods. Whether they wanted that status or not, they got it. And it wasn’t undeserved. From being unable to do much of anything except comfort patients and try this or that, they now eliminated many childhood diseases, stopped the wholesale slaughter of TB and smallpox, eliminated diabetes as a surefire death sentence, ended polio epidemics, and on and on.
But then in the late 1960s we entered The Age of Alternatives. Seemingly overnight, new and different approaches to almost everything came in vogue. Traditional education, religion, marriage, exercise, diet, power sources and more, were examined and found lacking by many. They then were replaced, either by new systems (Montesorri schools, macrobiotics, solar power, organic gardening, uber-liberal religion) or old systems we’d had little or no knowledge of (yoga, martial arts, meditation, Buddhism, herbalism, folk arts and crafts, etc.). And, as might’ve been predicted, modern Western medicine came under the gun, as alternative medicine became popular.
It turned out a lot of the alternatives were less effective or more harmful than accepted medicine, or in some cases out-and-out frauds.
As a young adult in the ’60s, I was overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of new information. But being the skeptic I always was, I researched things in depth before I tried them. Which, pre-internet, was no easy task, since access to sources was limited by what you could get your meat hooks on, directly. But having access to college libraries and inter-library loan, through a long and tedious process, I almost always found the information I needed.
When it came to alternative medicine, I was especially wary. It seemed a lot of claims and promotion were nothing more than patent medicines, with new wrappers and new raps. One example was the blue-green algae ballyhoo of the early ’80s (that is, 1980s, though it could’ve been directly lifted from the 1880s).
In everyday terms, blue-green algae is pond scum. But for the blue-green algae hustlers, it was nothing less than the answer to almost every medical woe known to humankind, and probably to a bunch of unknown ones as well. It claimed to suppress appetite, fight against anemia, diabetes and liver disease, all the while being a “superfood” that “cleansed and detoxified the body.”
Under scientific scrutiny, it did none of those things. But no matter, because hooked up with pyramid sales schemes and given the nature of the placebo effect, the stuff sold far and wide. Its believers claimed it cured Granny’s room-a-tiz, Junior’s zits, and Fido’s worms, with evermore miraculous cures poured in from all corners of This Great Land of Ours.
Finally, as often happens with such hucksterism (though not often enough for me), the blue-green algae boom imploded. After the initial heady rush of rejuvenation subsided, the marks realized, Junior still had zits, Fido still had worms, Granny was hobbling like she’d just escaped from an auto da fe. And even worse, they themselves hadn’t seen either the years or their blubber melt away. In fact, if finally dawned on them the only thing that had melted away was their disposable income (provided they’d had any to begin with).
And so blue-green algae took its place as a miracle cure, along with the likes of Blair’s Vermifluge, Wm. Scoot’s Billious Pills, Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral and my favorite, Queen Nerve Tonic Psychine, “an infallible remedy for consumption and all disorders of the throat and lungs.”
Or at least it has for now.
But given people’s belief in folly and disdain for facts, I’ve no doubt after I’m long a’moldering in the cold, cold ground, blue-green algae, will make a comeback. And once again, the hustlers will — for a while, at least — fill the rubes’ heads with false hope … and empty their pockets with glee.
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