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Advertising Patent Medicines

The Cow-Boy and Com-Cel-Sar, a particularly interesting advertising booklet that features a wealth of customer testimonials as well as a full ingredient list for the product, a feature incredibly uncommon in patent medicine advertising at the time.

Advertisements of patent medicines were often as odd as the medicines themselves. 

Due to lack of government regulation, patent medicine advertisements were able to take many liberties with what they did (or didn't) disclose about the product. Many of these advertisements use intentionally ambiguous language when discussing the contents of the medicine and instead focus on the benefits of the medicine and what it can be used to cure.

Patent medicine advertisements boasted of the concoction's abilities to cure any ailment. Advertising promising to settle stomachs and purify the blood were particularly popular, as the symptoms for common illnesses of the time, such as dysentery and cholera, often included stomach unrest, and the belief that illness originated in blood impurities was quite common amongst the public.

The advertisings of patent medicines followed the trends of illness and disease. During cholera epidemics advertisements featuring promises to cure the illness proliferated, and the constant worry of tuberculosis prompted constant advertisement for cures for the illness in print publications. When the prevalence of an illness increased markedly, so too did the number of patent medicines advertising their cure.

Many patent medicine advertisements specifically targeted the the "high and mighty" attitude of doctors and their inability to properly diagnose and cure patients of their ailments, usually in regards to chronic or life-long ailments.

It was also common to focus on the vegetable nature of the medicine in advertisements. One of the draws of patent medicines were that they did not have the foul mineral taste of physician prescribed medications. The botanical movement and the emerging focus on the natural aspects of home cures also popularized this herbal messaging.

A Shakespearean themed almanac from 1870 containing passages from Shakespeare's The Seven Ages of Man alongside advertisements for a variety of patent medicines

Advertising Techniques

Many manufacturers, in addition to designed advertisements, used customer testimonials to sell products. The advertisement would feature the glowing praise of a customer describing how the product in question changed their life and cured their ailments, and often would feature the name (and sometimes city and state) of the customer writing in. Many testimonials attested to the patent medicine's ability to cure ailments that physicians were unable to diagnose or cure over long periods of the patient's life. Likely, many of these testimonials were fabricated by manufacturing companies. 

Another tactic frequently employed was the use of storytelling in advertising. Manufacturers would distribute booklets containing a story of some kind, often about a character with a specific ailment, and intersperse advertisements for their product promising to cure the ailment throughout the story.

Companies also released their own almanacs, often with a kitschy theme of some sort. These books featured moon phase charts, weather reports, and zodiac horoscopes, and were laden with the company's product advertisements. 

Trade cards were also often employed as an advertising technique. The card would usually feature some sort of illustration on the cover, with information about the product and perhaps a customer testimonial or two on the opposite side. 

It was also common to distribute pamphlets.

Perhaps the most interesting of patent medicine advertising techniques is the usage of political figures in advertisements. Some products would go so far as to claim that the figure depicted on their advertisements endorsed their products (which was usually not true) while others simply used the likeness of the figure. 


A trade card for a cholera cure featuring a woman grieving over the coffin of Abraham Lincoln, released shortly after the president's death in 1865.