Patent Medicines

Horsfords Acid Phosphate

Horsford's Acid Phosphate for the Weak and Debilitated

The sale of patent medicines was a booming industry in America in the 19th century and into the early 20th. Lack of access to medical care, high death rates in medical procedures, a general feeling of distrust towards doctors, and the prevalence of folk medicine allowed for patent medicines to become extremely popular, particularly among the working class and those in rural areas, the communities with the least access to formal medical care.

Despite the name, many patent medicines in the 19th century were not actually patented. The term patent medicine originally referred to compound medicines that had been patented with a seal of approval from the British monarchy, coming from the English to the American colonies, but over time has come to refer to both patented and unpatented medicines of the time period. 

Patent medicines, also called nostrums and "quack" medicines, were available from a wealth of sources: over the counter from druggists with no prescription required, from travelling medicine men, and ordered through the mail.

The packaging often did not disclose the contents of the medicine to the patient. Several of the patent medicines in this exhibit predate the Pure Food and Drug Act, which required medicinal products to start disclosing their contents, so it is difficult to discern what many of these medicines were actually comprised of. Often they contained plant extracts combined with large quantities of high-proof alcohols. Several featured drugs such as opium and cocaine, and some contained toxic substances like turpentine and formaldehyde.

Even after the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, patent medicine manufacturers were still not required to list all ingredients found in the product until a revision of the act was passed in 1938. Until then, manufacturers were only required to list if their products contained any of 10 ingredients deemed addictive drugs: alcohol, morphine, opium, cocaine, heroin, alpha or beta eucaine, chloroform, cannabis indica, chloral hydrate, or acetanilide, or "any derivative or preparation of any such substances contained therein."

Ayer's Sarsaparilla

A flyer for Ayer's Sarsaparilla that promises to purify impure blood

Patent medicines came in a variety of forms, from syrups to bitters to pills. The medicines were almost always desigined to be ingested orally, or occassionally to topically applied in the case of a salve, ointment, or oil. 

My personal favorite patent medicine in the archives, Wizard Oil! This cure-all oil promises to heal burns, insect bites and stings, sunburn, and any skin abrasion. The booklet, while still chock-full of advertisements and promotional product testimonials, also contains diagrams detailing basic first aid practices such as tying a tourniquet and dressing wounds. It also includes a section on how to care for minor injuries like a lame back or a bloody nose, as well as a section on how to remove stains. The booklet ends with a section on how to use Wizard Oil for various ailments, with given examples of minor cuts and wounds, athlete's foot, cold sores, and chest and head colds. 

Patent Medicines