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Patent Medicine

Patent medicine use in the United States dates back to the early days of the Republic, when drugs imported from Europe were sold by postmasters, goldsmiths, grocers, and tailors. Following the Revolution, promoters played on America's growing sense of nationalism to advance cures made from American flora. The use of patent medicines expanded during the Jacksonian era as Americans rebelled against traditional doctors and enthusiastically endorsed quackery. Increasing urbanization and industrialization fed the market for patent medicines as new drugs were needed to combat epidemics.

But the phenomenal growth of patent medicine sales at mid century was due to two non-medical events: the passage of patent legislation by Congress in 1793, and the growth in the number of daily newspapers.

Patent legislation made it possible for manufactures to protect their product against counterfeiters. But most manufacturers did not seek patents on the formulas for their medicines, since these were often combinations of common products like alcohol and vegetable extracts which they preferred not to reveal. Instead, they sought patents on the shape of the bottle, promotional materials, and label information.

The number of newspapers published in the country grew from 200 during Jefferson's administration to over 4000 at the time of Lincoln's presidency. The penny press, begun by Benjamin Day in 1833, was marketed at a mass audience and cost just one cent per issue. To recover revenue lost from subscription prices, Day and others sought profits through advertising. Patent medicine was the perfect product to advertise in penny papers since its sensational claims buttressed the sensational bent of the stories appearing within the papers. Patent medicine manufacturers were the first companies to seek national audiences for their product, and daily newspapers and national weeklies were one way to get their message across.

"Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound" was the most successful patent medicine of the century, and Mrs. Pinkham's face was known across the country. She became interested in home remedies after the death of several family members, and she turned to spiritualism. Like most Americans, she was convinced that Divine Providence had stocked the promised land with vegetables and herbs unknown elsewhere that could cure disease. She was especially interested in a medicine that could cure the ills of suffering women.

Mrs. Pinkham received the basic formula for her nostrum as payment for a debt owed her husband. As a result of severe economic hardships for her family, she began heavy promotion of the medicine in Boston newspapers in 1876, and her son attached his mother's picture to the product. Thus was born modern advertising.

Mrs. Pinkham was popular with her female followers for her feminist bent, and for the fact that she encouraged them to write her for advice. Women had confidence in her and her product. However, an analysis of the compound by the AMA in 1914 revealed it was 20 percent alcohol, with the rest made of vegetable extracts.

Title page of Lydia E. Pinkham's Private Text-Book: Upon Ailments Peculiar to Women, one of many publications Mrs. Pinkham sold in addition to her medicine.

Home remedies were available in stores and catalogs as well as by direct mail from manufacturers. Many producers played on fear and superstition to boost sales, helped along by alarming yet reassuring advertisements. Each brand swore to provide the vital key to health.

Like Mrs. Pinkham's compound, liquor was the largest ingredient of most patent medicines. In addition to the vegetable extracts and sugar which gave each brand its flavor and color, the remedies were sometimes laced with cocaine, caffeine, opium, or morphine. The Sears catalog, for example, sold a morphine-laced mixture intended to be slipped into a wayward husband's coffee in order to keep him home nights. Bored housewives and the homebound elderly were susceptible to becoming addicts.

The ingredients of popular medicines were not secret: many of the home medical reference books such as Secret Nostrums and Systems contained recipes for copying favorite patent cures in the privacy of the home. It was cheaper and more discrete to make your own, and Temperance followers wanted their versions without alcohol.

Eventually, doctors began to speak out against nostrums. As early as 1827, the New York Medical Society formed a committee to study quack medicines. The medicines became more suspect as they became highly profitable. A tax was placed on patent medicines during the Civil War to raise funds for the war effort. In 1859, yearly sales of nostrums topped $3.5 million; by 1904 this figure had risen to $74.5 million. With the advent of new printing methods that allowed for color lithographs, billboards and posters became more attractive. As competition increased, manufacturers gave away premiums to gain customers.

An example of marketing by patent medicine manufacturers, this from a family almanac distributed by Scovill and Co., 1873.

Bythe end of the century, public opinion about federal regulation changed, with Americans favoring laws to force manufacturers to disclose more about ingredients and use realistic language on packages. These laws encountered fierce resistance from the manufacturers. The Proprietary Association, a trade association of medicine producers, was founded in 1881 and quickly became a powerful lobby. It was aided by the press which had grown dependent on money received from remedy advertising. When North Dakota passed a limited disclosure law which included patent medicines, Proprietary Association members voted to remove their advertisements from all of the state's newspapers. Finally, in 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act with the help of Temperance supporters and muckraking journalists.

Oleson, Charles W. Secret Nostrums and Systems of Medicine: A Book of Formulas. Chicago: Oleson & Co., 1892.

Patent medicine almanacs, 1873-1889. MSS-077, Donald D. Duhaime Collection, Ward M. Canaday Center.

Pinkham, Lydia E. Ancient Legends. Lynn, Massachusetts: Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company, n.d.

Pinkham, Lydia E. Lydia E. Pinkham's Private Text-Book: Upon Ailments Peculiar to Women. Lynn, Massachusetts: Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Co., n.d.


Barbara Floyd, University Archivist, University of Toledo

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Last Updated: 1/3/12