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Dec 18

1900-Patent Medicines: The Art of the Great Humbug

Posted on December 18, 2020 at 1:22 PM by Donna Casement


1900-Patent Medicine: The Art of the Great Bogus
Written by Donna Casement, State Library of Kansas
KGI Online Library Blog-December 18, 2020
(All copies of newspaper articles cited here can be viewed at KGI ONLINE LIBRARY)


1900-Patent Medicine: The Art of the Great Humbug

In L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900 and illustrated by William Wallace Denslow, Dorothy and her friends finally get to meet Oz, the Great and Terrible. They were unimpressed. So much so, that the impatient lion let out a roar, Toto accidentally knocked over the screen, and the group saw a little, old man with a bald head and wrinkled face. When asked, “Who are you?” The trembling man replied, “I am Oz, the Great and Terrible, but don’t strike me-please don’t and I’ll do anything you want me to. . . . I have been making believe.” (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum)

1-The Great OzIllustrations by William Wallace Denslow
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by L. Frank Baum

Oz was not the great and powerful Wizard as he proclaimed. Oz was really a circus ventriloquist and balloonist, born in Omaha, whose balloon had become unmoored and set down in the Land of Oz. Chapter XVI in the book is titled, “The Magic Art of the Great Humbug”. It is within this chapter that Oz helped everyone but Dorothy imagine and get what they wanted. Oz says, “How can I help being a humbug, when all these people make me do things that everybody knows can’t be done?” Dorothy had to do more than imagine, found the good witch, clicked her silver shoes three times, and found herself home to Kansas.

Charlatans, imposters, and fakes have resided in populations throughout time, peddling their tonics, telling people to believe their elixir could cure all their ills, and making a nice monetary profit in return. At the turn of the twentieth century, patent medicines were extremely popular and sold by mail, in drug stores and through newspapers advertisement across the nation.

3-Drug stores

These tonics or elixirs were a combination of drug compounds, trademarked by fanciful names and not always patented. "Remedies were available for almost any ailment. These remedies were openly sold to the public and claimed to cure or prevent nearly every ailment known to man, including venereal disease, tuberculosis, colic in infants, indigestion, or dyspepsia, and even cancer. "Female complaints" were often the target of such remedies, offering hope for women to find relief from their monthly discomforts." ("History of Patent Medicine", Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Delaware)

Patent medicines were heavily advertised in local papers. Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription was immensely popular. Ads for this product were multiple-columned with graphics, testimonials, and outlandish promises for the healing vague symptoms.

4-A Husbands Terrible Alternative
(The Topeka Daily Capital, September 30, 1900) 

An ad titled, “A Husband’s Terrible Alternative” tells the tale about a man who must save either his wife or his child when their ship catches fire and sinks. The story then transitions to “How many husbands remember that long vigil of slow creeping hours, while the agonizing struggle of motherhood goes on in an upper chamber? . . . Almost every wife needs some help to prepare her for maternity. Sometimes the chief suffering comes from nervousness and morning sickness. The use of “Favorite Prescription” will stop the sickness and cure the nervousness.” (#1-"A Husband's Terrible Alternative",The Topeka Daily Capital, September 30, 1900)

5-An operation
(The Topeka Daily Capital, December 30, 1900)

Testimonies within patent medicine advertisement were dramatic claims from ‘real’ people who would praise the ability of the medicine to change their lives. In an ad for Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription “An Operation Is Often Unnecessary” the ad begins, THE KNIFE is always a woman’s dread though often a doctor’s delight. There is no question but that enthusiasm for surgery leads to the advice of an operation many times, when the operation is not only needless, but will prove absolutely beneficial.” Then the testimonials confirm the healing powers of Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription, “It is with extreme pleasure that I make known to you my rapid recovery from a long illness as a result of complication or organic diseases … I have full knowledge of its properties and its powers to draw one from the brink of the grave,” (#2-“An Operation is Often Unnecessary", The Topeka Daily Capital, December 30, 1900)

6-The Restaurant Rush
(The Leavenworth Times, March 21, 1900)

One particular ad titled, “THE RESTAURANT RUSH!” began with a multi-victim, ferry accident and morphed into an epitaph for the thousands victims who have died of liver, heart and lung disease induced by the American habit of hurrying to their meals. “Golden Medical Discovery cures diseases of the stomach and the allied organs of digestion and nutrition.” Following an array of testimonials and there is an offer for Dr. Pierce’s book, “Common Sense Medical Adviser”, free for the receipt of stamps to pay for mailing, and only 21 cents for paper-covered book, or 31 cents for cloth-bound volume. (#3-“The Restaurant Rush”, The Leavenworth Times, March 21, 1900)

Dr. Ray Pierce’s patent medicine manufacturing business, was based in Buffalo, New York and sold millions of dollars worth of remedies. Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery and Pierce’s Favorite Prescriptions, were two of his most successful tonics.

7-Dr. Pierces Formulas
The Era Formulary, 5,000 Formulas for Druggists

It’s possible Dr. Pierce’s early patent medicines were highly successful because of the high alcohol content included in his early formulas. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription contained a variety of ingredients including a tincture of opium ½ fl. dram, a tincture of digitalis ½ fl. dram, 2 fl. ounces of alcohol and 8 fluid ounces of water. Not only did the elixir include opium, digitalis, but was 20% alcohol. (Formula #1103 and Formula #1102, page 109, The Era Formulary, 5000 Formulas for Druggists, D. O. Haynes & Company, 1893)

8-The Day-Dream
(The Kansas Chief, Troy, Kansas August 30, 1900)

By 1900, advertisement for Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription medicine advertised that opium and alcohol had been removed from the product. According to an ad titled, “The Day-Dream”, women are drawn in with “the touch of a baby lips-the pressure of baby fingers. Then she wakes to the regret and heart-ache of the childless woman. Yet that dream maybe made a reality. In a great many instances women who do not bear children or whose children are born so fragile that they quickly fade away, can be made happy mothers by the use of Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription.” The ad emphasized that the tonic “contains no alcohol and is entirely free opium, cocaine and other narcotics. It is a true temperance medicine”. However, the tonic is credited to “act upon the organs of maternity giving them great vigor and elasticity, so the baby comes into the world practically without pain to the mother”. (#4-"The Day-Dream", The Kansas Chief, Troy, Kansas, August 30, 1900)

9-Booker Washington Praises Peruna
(Wichita Daily Eagle, May 6, 1900)

Testimonies were accepted as trustworthy sources of endorsement for patent medicines. Noteworthy politicians and historical figures, for a fee, had their names used to endorse a variety of trademarked drugs. Booker T. Washington, a prominent leader of African Americans in the late 19th and early 20th century was one such person.

Washington stated in his endorsement for Peruna, a popular tonic sold in the millions, “Gentlemen---Your remarkable remedy, Peruna, is certainly unexcelled as a tonic. I have used one bottle and I can truthfully say that I have never taken any medicine that has improved me as much as Peruna. Peruna has my hearty commendation as a catarrhal tonic and a certain cure for catarrh.’ Booker Washington.’” The advertisement went on to include President McKinley in the endorsement by adding to Washington’s remarks, “What this noted man says must inspire faith. President McKinley said of him in an address at Tuskegee: He (Booker Washington) has won a worthy reputation as one of the great leaders of his race, widely known and much respect at home and abroad as an accomplished educator, a great orator, and a true philanthropist.’” (#5-"Booker Washington Praises Peruna", The Wichita Daily Eagle, May 6, 1900)

10 A Column of Medicine
(The Salina Daily Republican-Journal) December 15, 1900) 

Many legislators, including U. S. Senator S. D. NcEnery of Louisiana, sold their endorsement for Peruna, advocating the healing powers of tonic. “Gentlemen-Pe-ru-na is an excellent Tonic. I have used it sufficiently to say that I believe it to be all that you claim for it. Very Respectfully, S. D. McEnery.” (#6-"A Column of Medicine Two Thousand Feet High," The Salina Daily Republican-Journal, December 15, 1900)

11-Dr. Llewellyn Jordan
(The Topeka Daily Capital, December 30, 1900)

Even the esteemed Dr, Llewellyn, Medical Examiner for the United States Treasury, states he was cured by Peruna after suffering for 15 months. “Gentlemen-Allow me to express my gratitude to you for the benefit derived from your wonderful remedy. One short month has brought forth a vast change and I now consider myself a well man after fifteen months of suffering. Fellow sufferers, Peruna will cure you.” The endorsement was followed by testimonials about the catarrh curse and afflictions, all cured by Peruna. (#7-"Dr. Llewellyn Jordan", The Topeka Daily Capital, December 30, 1900)

In 1900, many of the patent drugs claimed to cure a variety of medical conditions that include the word “catarrh”. The Peruna company claimed in its ads that “Half Our Ills Are Catarrh”, a term used throughout the ad used to describe a multitude of ailments. One Peruna advertisement included testimonies from a woman who was cured of “catarrh to the head” and another woman who was cured “of catarrh of the nose, very bad”. The word catarrh means, inflammation of a mucous membrane, especially one chronically affecting the human nose and air passages. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

12-Half Our Ills
(The Leavenworth Times, February 4, 1900)

Dr. Hartman’s Peruna was well known and a well used product. throughout the United States. “A rather infamous patent medicine had some strange ties to allergy and asthma-Peruna, which eventually came to be known as a ’prohibition tonic.’ These tonics had ways to skirt around the law but still imbibe, and Peruna was the most popular of all. And no wonder-it started out with an alcohol by volume of around 28%. Quite a kick.” (“Want your RX straight up or on the rocks?”, March 27, 2017, American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology)

Dr. Pierce and Dr. Hartman, both medical doctors, trademarked their successful medicines in a crowded field of patent medicines. The promotion and sale of patent medicines were available to anyone with money and a willingness to promote their products to the public. Individuals were known to set up temporary quarters in a town and sell the fact that they were a successful doctor, who had just discovered the cure for a variety of health problems. When the welcome was over, they would move on to the next town.

13-Faker and Death
In 1900, the Kansas Health Department lobbied for legislation that would create a state board of medical registration and examination to regulate the practice of medicine.

Secretary W. B. Swan M.D. said, “So far as legal requirements are concerned, we are about fifteen years behind the times. All sorts of quacks, charlatans and imposters are overrunning this state in the guise of physicians, making extravagant claims concerning their abilities to heal the sick, staying from one week to two months in each locality, and, when having deceived as many people as possible, move to another community.” (1900-Sixteenth Annual Report, Kansas State Board of Health)

14-Cure Faker
                                                      (1912-Bulletin no. 2, February, Kansas State Board of Health)                                                                                    

The legislature complied with the request of the board of health and created the State Board of Medical Registration and Examination. “This brings the standard of practitioners of our state up to the plane of the requirements of other states. The work of the new board has been thorough and most excellent, and while it will take some time to root out all of the unqualified medical men who have been practicing this state for years, it will stop the overrunning of the state with fresh importations of ignorant pretenders in medicine. (1901-1902, First Biennial Report of the Kansas State Board of Health)

Local druggist compounded ingredients and sold their own tonics that were used for a variety of ailments. However, it was hard to compete with patent medicine companies who promoted their product by vast quantities of advertisement. Patent medicine companies would contract with local papers at a much lower advertising rate than local advertisers, and some newspapers began to reject the placement of patent medicine advertisements in their papers because of the disparity in ad costs.

“One of the most peculiar and unsatisfactory things in the advertising line that we have to deal with is the patent medicine proposition which has been a bore to readers and a confounded nuisance to the country newspaper for years, and like Herbert, of the Brown County World, we have looked forward with relief and joy to refuse this class of advertisement,” wrote the Onaga Herald newspaper.

15-You cant float a balloon
The paper continued, “But every printer knows that patent medicine ads are run at a much less rate per line or per inch than is charged to the home merchant, who lives here, helps to make the town, pays taxes and identifies with the enterprises of the city. We charge our home people 10 cents per inch for display advertisement, and 5 cents per line for local; then where is the sense or justice in taking a whole lot of patent medicine stuff, much of it very objectionable, at less than 1 cent per inch or a half-cent a line?” (#8-The Onaga Herald, December 6, 1900)

Other papers were more concerned about the health of their readers. “Save for the presence of a few local medicine advertisements which are placed in this paper by our home druggist, THE CHAMPION does not print an offensive advertisement. And it will not renew contracts for the few patent medicine locals it now carries. We have no faith in any patent medicine. If any of our readers are ailing, we advise them to consult a physician. It is money thrown away to buy patent medicine cure-alls. They don’t work.” (#9-The Atchison Daily Champion, October 27, 1900)

In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, the first in a series of consumer protection laws that led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. The law banned the interstate trafficking of drugs that had been adulterated or mislabeled. The law “also requires a statement on the label of the presence and amount of certain specified habit-forming drugs, and the Sherley Amendment insists that all statements on the label, on the carton or in the literature accompanying the remedy shall be therapeutically correct.” (“The Patent Medicine Situation” by John Phillips Street, speech before the Food and Drugs Section on October 19, 1917)

Street concluded, “The speaker believes that self-medication is a dangerous pastime, but as long as human nature endures, it will be impossible to repress completely man's desire to tinker with his insides.”