Patent medicines were highly promoted concoctions that seldom delivered their promised cures. The term “patent” probably derives from the issuance of “royal patents,” which were endorsements of medical elixirs in 17th century Europe. They were not “patented” by the modern definition, since their ingredients would have to be revealed in the patenting process.
Most of these concoctions did not work and were potentially harmful. Many were herbal mixtures blended with laudanum, a solution of alcohol and whole opium (which included morphine, codeine, and other opiates). Some other patent medicines contained cocaine. Aside from pain relief and cough suppression, most of these “drugs” were of little medicinal value.
Use of inexpensive ingredients created high profit margins and allowed for widespread regional and national advertising. Newspapers in the 19th and early 20th century carried numerous advertisements for products claiming cures for almost every ailment, from skin rashes to cancer. Some locally advertised products included Dr. Spencer’s Vegetable Anti-Bilious Pills (1843), Simon’s Liver Regulator (1874), Scott’s Emulsion (1887), Mexican Mustang Liniment for Man and Beast (1887), and Prickly Ash Bitters (1900).
Other locally advertised products alluded to an Indian origin, since Native Americans were thought by many in the 19th century to be more attuned to nature. An 1843 ad touted The Indian Panacea, a cure for scrofula, cancer, syphilis, scurvy, piles, and other afflictions. In 1886, Taylor’s Cherokee Remedy was pushed for coughs, croup, and consumption. In 1896, McElree claimed “THE GREAT SPIRIT PLANTED IT” for the main ingredient in Wine of Cardui, a medicine intended to cure “female diseases.”
Perhaps the most bizarre of all patent medicine advertising was for Grove’s Chill Tonic. It featured a grotesque chimera of a child’s head attached to a pig’s body with the motto “MAKES CHILDREN AS FAT AS PIGS.” Tennessee druggist E.W. Grove developed a way to temper the bitter taste of quinine with a mixture of sweet syrup and lemon flavoring, making it easier to administer to children. It was one of the few patent medicines that did not contain alcohol or opiates plus it actually was an effective treatment for malaria. His tonic became wildly successful and made him a millionaire.
Regulation of patent medicines began in 1906, with the Pure Food and Drug Act that required the listing of ingredients on the label. In 1915, many patent medicines were withdrawn from sale due to the Harrison Narcotics Act, which taxed and tightly regulated the sale of opiates and cocaine. The West Alabama Breeze noted in March 1915 that as the law took effect, many local addicts were hospitalized or in the “asylum.”
The production of most patent medicines gradually ended by the 1930s, as fewer and fewer products were available without a physician’s prescription, but some survived by modifying their ingredients to comply with federal regulations. Others, such as Bayer Aspirin, Grove’s Chill Tonic and Vicks VapoRub, proved to have medicinal benefits, pain or symptom relief, and low potential for harm or abuse.
The age of patent medicines is gone. However, the marketing methods pioneered by their manufacturers survive today to promote toothpaste, deodorants, shampoos, nutritional supplements, and a myriad of other products.