Updated: Jul 24
Editor’s Note: Camille King followed her curiosity regarding a beautiful family collection of vintage medicine bottles to conduct archival research and literature review on the marketing of patent medicines. Over a two-part post, Camille discusses the marketing strategies deployed to sell particular patented medicines (Part One), and subsequently considers factors that led to greater awareness regarding the content of patent medicines and their implications for public health (Part Two – forthcoming).
The history of patent medicines in the United States is one filled with hidden agendas. Nineteenth century medicines were developed by entrepreneurs with minimal to no knowledge of disease or treatments. In absence of the availability of regulatory oversight, many of these over-the-counter products were laden with opiates, alcohol, and dangerous chemicals such as lead or formaldehyde. Heavy advertising through trade cards promised health cures and promoted the sales of these products to customers hoping to find relief of their ailments. Journalists educated the public through newspaper articles and books, and brought to light the misrepresentation that occurred in the sale and ingestion of these products that sometimes killed consumers or became addictive.
Historically, patent medicines made entrepreneurs very wealthy while not always providing the healthiest options for the unaware or naïve buyer of their products. A patent medicine is a commercial product heavily advertised as a remedy, protected by a trademark, and whose contents are not completely disclosed. These products were sold in multiple forms such as tonics, elixirs, or liniments. Patients turned to patent medicines and read the label on the bottle, often not knowing what ingredients were inside. The product label was often key in enticing consumers to purchase. These marketing labels often boasted of curing multiple diseases, even though they often specialized in resolving one symptom.
My interest in writing this paper stemmed from my discovery of a family collection of antique medicine bottles. Extensive research was conducted on the history of the many bottles that showed physician names or medicine titles embossed in glass as well as the shapes and colors of each of the bottles. Archives and artifacts of museums and libraries, old newspaper clippings, as well as a review of the current literature, led to the writing of this essay.
Categorized by bodily symptoms, this essay will discuss some of the patent medicines used during the 1800s and 1900s in the United States and consider how they marketed their products. Part One of this essay informs the reader of the dangers of patent medicines and how seductively they were marketed during the 19th and 20th centuries in the United States. Part Two (forthcoming) will discuss how the dangers of these medicines came to light and the implementation of measures to regulate the pharmaceutical industry and enhance safety for the public.
Marketing strategies for patent medicines
The simplicity of a particular medicine was not appealing to many, but instead of a patent, people were more interested in a trademark, or the advertising campaign. Trademarks gave the owner a proprietary right to a brand name and associated branding. Sign boards and handbills had long been used for marketing. Painted barns, fences, posters on trees, and medicine shows brought entertainment to town. Medicines were marketed through newspapers, flyers, and the influence of an expert’s reputation.3 Advertising promoted ‘before-and-after’ testimonials in newspapers and magazines, free treatment coupons, postage stamps, and traveling medicine shows. They promised rapid relief of symptoms with backing from highly important institutions, secrets from exotic and faraway lands, and claims of major scientific breakthroughs. A patent invention didn’t have to work for it to be promoted. The writers of these testimonials may have healed themselves through their own active immune systems without ever needing a medicine.
Entrepreneurs of patent medicines began marketing their products through trade cards. Trade cards were extremely popular with the public (Figure 1). Color printing was a novelty, and the cards were valued for their images.4 The front of the card was illustrated, usually in bright colors and carried the name of the product and address of the local distributor. A sales pitch for the product was printed on the back. Trade card pictures often detailed the costumes, furnishings, and manners of the period. The public was intrigued and collected cards in albums. ‘Before-and-after’ treatment cards were most popular – often showing someone in a miserable state, and then smiling after using the product. The popularity of trade cards and traveling medicine shows encouraged people from all walks of life to abandon their homemade remedies and purchase these items.
Patent Medicines for Pain Symptoms
Perry Davis was the first entrepreneur, around 1840, to develop the term “pain killer” and offer a vegetable product whose primary purpose was pain relief (Figure 2). The contents in these products were mostly alcohol with around 1 percent opium.5 Other ingredients included myrrh, guaiac, and oil of spruce, with pepper being the only vegetable. The Pain Killer brand offered “advertainment” consisting of a book of rhymes and pictures related to Pain Killer and a brand story centered on its inventor.
Figure 2. (L to R): Perry Davis’ Vegetable Pain Killer and Hicks Capudine Liquid (Source: Author’s personal collection)
Other 19th century medicine used for pain relief included coca (leaf), capudine and laudanum. The coca leaf had been used for many years as a local anaesthetic for pain relief.[6,7] John Stith Pemberton invented a concoction of coca as a patent medicine and was marketed as a temperance drink;8 the Temperance Movements of the mid-1800s promoted abstinence from alcohol use.
The marketing read that the drink made an individual smarter, but also kept them from drinking alcohol. Early concoctions of the coca leaf and the cola nut eventually came to be known as the popular Coca Cola drink; This patent medicine incorporating the coca leaf and the cola nut was bought out by Asa Griggs Candler, and Candler’s marketing tactics led to the Coca Cola soft drink.
Hicks Capudine Liquid was marketed not only to cure a headache and neuralgia, but also cough and cold,9 while Laudanum, very popular in the late 1800s, was sold for pain relief with few people knowing that the contents were pure opium and alcohol.
Patent Medicines for Gastrointestinal Symptoms
Figure 3. (L to R) Phillips Milk of Magnesia, Scott’s Emulsion of Cod Liver Oil, Fletcher’s Castoria, and Dr. J. Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters. (Source: Author’s personal collection).
Patent medicines promoted during the late 1800s and early 1900s suggested bitters to reduce gastrointestinal symptoms. Bitters was an extract made from bitter herbs.10 The product was used for four decades to treat constipation, biliousness, indigestion, loss of appetite arising from imperfect digestion or inactive liver or bowels, and headaches.
Dr. J. Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters (1853-1960)
The indications for this product as provided by the manufacturer, included dyspepsia, loss of appetite, darting pains, jaundice, headache, worms, dizziness, colds, fevers, cleansing the blood of humors and moistening the skin (Figure 3). This product is also recommended for liver complaints, strangury (blockage or irritation at the base of the bladder, resulting in severe pain and a strong desire to urinate), dropsy, and croup. Reports document that the product “will clear the blood and you will never have acne.” This product also had links to the Temperance Movement but unfortunately it contained up to 43% alcohol depending on the year developed.
Figure 5. Dr. W. B. Caldwell’s Syrup Pepsin (Source: Author’s personal collection).
Figure 4. (L to R): T. Leonard’s Asiatic Stomach Regulator, Dyspepsia Antidote- Remedy for Liver Disease, and Atwood’s Jaundice Bitters (Source: Author’s personal collection).
Other bitters available at the time had product information listed to help the following medical problems: dyspepsia, loss of appetite, jaundice, liver complaints, worms, dizziness, headache, and cleanses the blood from humors (Figure 4). In turn, Scott’s Emulsion of Cod Liver Oil, Castoria, and Dr. W. B. Caldwell’s Syrup of Pepsin (Figure 5) were widely promoted to treat other gastrointestinal symptoms, including constipation, with some form of the latter two products still available today (sennosides and cascara). All these products contained a percentage of alcohol which was very common during these times.[13,14]
Patent Medicines for Respiratory Symptoms
19th century medicines marketed for respiratory symptoms included herbal preparations of coltsfoot, licorice, Tonsiline for irritation of the throat, and cough/croup syrups with heavy doses of alcohol (Figure 6). One such product marketed at the time was Thomson’s Compound.
Thomson’s Compound (1850)
This product was advertised as “the cure for consumption (pulmonary tuberculosis), asthma, bronchitis, spitting of blood, pain in the side and breast, sore throat, hoarseness, palpitation of the heart, whooping cough, croup, hives, nervous tremors, liver complaints, diseased kidneys, and affections generally of the throat, breast, and lungs.” Another advertisement stated that the ingredients consisted of “a union of the principles of some of our most valuable vegetable pectorals in a combination with tar” and boasted that “the healing power of tar and some of the most certain tonic vegetable pectorals…united to make it the most valuable medicine ever offered to the public.”
While the Compound had antiseptic, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and antitussive properties, long-term and repeated exposure to some of the potion’s ingredients may have resulted in damaging consequences. With the notable exception of cannabis, the results of ingredient analysis are consistent with the expected components of a remedy advertised as primarily containing tar. The narcotic effects of alcohol and cannabis may well have helped with nervous tremors, heart palpitations, and other nervous conditions, as well as aiding in sleep. Long-term and repeated exposure, however, to several metals present within the Compound could have resulted in serious health effects.
Figure 6. (L to R): Coltsfoot expectorant, Dr. Parker’s Cough Cure, Licoricine For coughs/colds “Acts like Magic,”, Dr. Hooker’s Cough and Croup Syrup, Tonsiline (Source: Author’s personal collection).
Patent Medicines for Internal/Behavioral Symptoms
Dr. King’s New Discovery for Consumption (1893), widely used for cough with those patients who were ill with consumption, also had promise for those patients showing behavioral symptoms. Dr. King’s medicine contained both morphine and chloroform and reported that it promoted cheerfulness in patients. However, Dr. Miles’ New Heart Cure was more popular (Figure 7).
Dr. Miles’ Restorative Nervine (1885) and Dr. Miles’ New Heart Cure (1888)
Figure 7. L to R: Dr. King’s New Discovery for Consumption, and Dr. Miles’ New Heart Cure (Source: Author’s personal collection)
Dr. Miles began his medical company in the late 19th century. He marketed both nervine and heart medicines for nervous/stress disorders and anxiety-related illnesses. These medicines had strong sedative effects.16 Advertisements claimed that the ‘New Heart Cure’ medicine solved such common problems as heart trouble, negative side effects from smoking, signs of aging, insomnia, epilepsy, back aches, and the frustrations of annoying children. The major ingredient was bromide – an initial sedative and anticonvulsant. Dr. Miles marketed heavily in the 1890s, even to rural areas, and eventually overseas. He subsequently shortened the company name to Miles Laboratories and the company expanded over time to include the production of S.O.S. soap pads, citric acid, enzymes, and medical supplies. In 1978, Bayer International bought out Miles Laboratories for $253 million dollars (USD).
Patent Medicines for Dermatological Symptoms
Dr Thomas’ Eclectic Oil (1850s)
Figure 8. Thomas’ Oil came in bottles embossed with ‘Eclectric Oil’ and ‘Eclectic Oil’ (Source: Author’s personal collection).
Eclectic Oil was a topical medicine for sore muscles and a cure all for many different ailments, but most commonly to reduce inflammation or skin conditions. The word ‘eclectric’ was a combination of eclectic and electric, promoting the popular belief that electricity had healing powers.17 The indications or uses for this product as provided on its packaging included:
For external and internal use; for coughs due to colds and common sore throat; for lameness and soreness of the muscles; to relieve the pains of simple neuralgia, earache, and toothache; to relieve inflammation in superficial bruises, cuts, burns and scalds, minor sprains, nonvenomous insect bites, frostbites, chapped hands, corns, bunions, and warts.
It contained the following drug active ingredients: spirits of turpentine, camphor, oil of tar, red thyme, and fish oil (Figure 8).
Another example of medications to treat dermatological symptoms included Mother’s Friend vegetable oil and soap. This product was a liniment used externally for expectant mothers. Marketing reportedly boasted of women having quick deliveries and that the medicine would alleviate morning sickness or any risks of labor pains.18 Other popular dermatological remedies included in this category were Sloan’s Liniment (Feature Image), an initial veterinary preparation that used hot pepper to promote heat, and White Eagle’s Rattlesnake Oil which fraudulently had no snake oil, as the name advertised.
The most popular patent medicines offered during the 19th and 20th centuries in the United States were marketed based on the alleged relief to specific bodily symptoms. Marketing was geared toward capturing a person’s emotions. Trade cards, widely kept by people during that time, appealed to the collectable spirit of a person’s personality. Individuals were also enchanted by the forthcoming ‘miraculous cure’ that was advertised. People believed in the messages of these patent medicines, even though many didn’t show a cure of symptoms and often felt worse, yet it is important to understand the implications of the harmful components that made up many of these concoctions. In a subsequent post, part two of this essay, I will discuss how knowledge of these harmful medicines came about and how the U.S. government played a part in improving pharmaceutical safety.
Feature Image: (L to R): Campana Italian Balm, Genuine Health Balsam, Sloan’s Liniment (Source: Author’s personal collection)
1 Kevin Bryan, “Pseudoscience and Your Health,” Tempus Magazine, January 9, 2019. https://risingstarmagazine.com/pseudoscience-and-your-health
2 Judy Z. Segal, “The Empowered Patient on a Historical-Rhetorical Model: 19th Century Patent-Medicine Ads and the 21st-Century Health Subject,” Health: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness, and Medicine 24, no 5 (2020): https://doi.org/10.1177/1363459319829198
3 Samuel Adams Hopkins, The Great American Fraud, Colliers National Weekly October 7, 1905: https:// www.gutenberg.org/files/44325/44325-h/44325-h.htm
4 Cornell University Library. Trade Cards: An Illustrated History. Cornell University Library. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. https://rmc.library.cornell.edu/tradecards/exhibition/history/index.html#modal
5 David Sharrah and George S. Bause, “Perry Davis’ Pain Killer: America’s First Nationally Advertised Drug for Analgesia?” Journal of Anesthesia History 3, no 3 (2017): 112-113.
6 Lester Grinspoon and J. B. Bakalar, “Coca and Cocaine as Medicines: A Historical Overview,” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 2-3, (1981): 149-159. https://doi.org/10.1016/0378-8741(81)90051-9
7 Kay Eschner, “Coca Cola’s Creator Said the Drink Would Make You Smarter,” Smithsonian Magazine, March 29, 2017. Https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/coca-colas-creator-said-drink-would-make-you-smarter-180962665/
8 James R. Rohrer, “The Origins of the Temperance Movement: A Reinterpretation.” Journal of American Studies 24, no 2 (2009): 228-235. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0021875800029753
9 Ross D. Petty, “Pain-Killer: A 19th Century Global Patent Medicine and the Beginnings of Modern brand Marketing,” Journal of Macromarketing 39, no 3 (2019).
10 Michael T. Torbenson, Robert H. Kelly, Jonathan Erlen, Lorna Cropcho, Michael Moraca,
Bonnie Beiler, B., K. Rao & Mohammed Virji, “Lash’s: A Bitter Medicine: Biochemical Analysis of an Historical Proprietary Medicine,” Historical Archaeology 34 (2000): 56-64.
11 Bay Bottles, “Dr. J. Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters,” Bay Bottles, (2020): https://baybottles.com/
12 NMAH, “Atwood’s Jaundice Bitters,” National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institute (2020): https//Americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1298259
13 NMAH, “Scott’s Emulsion,” National Museum of American History. Smithsonian Institute (2021): https//Americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_1352148
14ISU, “Caldwell’s Syrup Pepsin,” Illinois State University – Old Main Artifacts. Monticello,
Illinois, (2012): https://oldmainartifacts.wordpress.com/?s=caldwells+syrup+pepsin
15 Richard L. Fishel, John W. Scott, Kristin M. Hedman, and Trudi E. Butler, “Chemical Analysis of the Ingredients of an 1850’s Thomson’s Compound Syrup of Tar Patent Medicine Bottle,” Technical Briefs in Historical Archaeology 10, (2016): 9-20.
16 ISU. (2013). Illinois State University – Old Main Artifacts. Dr. Miles Restorative Nervine. Https://oldmainartifacts.wordpress.com/2013/11/30/dr-miles-restorative-nervine-elkhart-in/
17CatherineSullivan, “Dr. Thomas’ Eclectric Oil,” Parks Canada Research Bulletin 3 (1984): Parks Canada History.
18 Daily Times, “Mother’s Friend,” The Bradford Regulator Company, (1899): Atlanta, GA. https://thequackdoctor.com/index.php/mothers-friend/ www.dailytimes-portsmouth.com
19 NMAH, “White Eagle’s Indian Oil,” National Museum of American History. Smithsonian Institute, (2009): https//Americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_748961.