Snake Oils, Patent Medicines & Sure Cures

June 9, 2016 10:05 pm Published by

The search for good health in the 18th & 19th centuriesCocaine Toothache Drops ad
By Ann Koppy, BHSoc Historian

Unregulated and often deadly, patent medicines were often the first choice for home health care in the 18th and 19th centuries. These drug compounds – seldom patented, but usually trademarked – originated in England as proprietary medications granted “Patents of royal favor” by kings and queens. Colonists brought them to America in the early 18th century. Dr. Bateman’s Pectoral Drops – aniseed, camphor, and opium – were sold in Massachusetts by 1720 and said to cure rheumatism, influenza, and colds.

Patent Medicines
By the 1850s manufacturing the products had become big business, driven by self-diagnosis and self-medication. Physicians’ fees were frequently unaffordable, prescribed medicines ineffective, and treatment painful. The medical profession called these over-the-counter remedies quackery – dangerous, ineffective, and laden with cocaine, morphine, or opium. Very profitable and widely popular, they were readily available by mail order or in drugstores for almost every condition and age: adults, children, and infants. Glowing recommendations and secret ingredients promised therapeutic relief for scrofula (tuberculosis infection of lymph nodes in the neck), venereal disease, teething, colic, consumption (tuberculosis), colds, cancer, and indigestion.

Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound was the best-known elixir for women. It promised to “cure entirely the worst form of …all Ovarian troubles, Inflammation and Ulceration, Falling and Displacements, and the consequent Spinal Weakness, and is particularly adapted to the Change of Life.” Pinkham (1819-1883
) began to brew a concoction of herbs, roots and 18% alcohol to ease “female complaints” in her Massachusetts home in the 1860s. She encouraged customers to write to her with their medical concerns at a time when doctors and their female patients were uncomfortable discussing them.

As the 19th century drew to a close, physicians and medical societies brought increased pressure to force manufacturers to disclose ingredients. The temperance movement, concerned with the high alcohol content, joined forces to prevent the use of liquor in medications. The alcohol content by volume percentage ranged from 13% in Allen’s Sarsaparilla to 45% in Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters.

Not every patent medicine was pure quackery. A Missouri physician and a Pennsylvania company in the early 19th century formulated anti-fever pills containing quinine. Extracted from the cinchona tree, it treated malarial fever and inflammations. Another compound dating from the 1860s contained acetanilide, a precursor of acetomenaphine that reduced pain and fever.

Snake OilsHostetters Bitters ad
Snake oils were similar, but less deadly. It was a generic term for cure-alls sold at traveling medicine shows, usually in the Old West beginning in the 1860s. A pitchman, often calling himself a doctor, and his planted accomplice proclaimed the wonders of these miraculous, but bogus, liquids. Genuine snake oil was produced by a Chinese water snake and rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Its use originated with Chinese workers on the transcontinental railroad line as a traditional treatment for inflammation, aches, and pains from difficult manual labor. The phony treatments may have contained rattlesnakes or, more likely, a combination of camphor, red peppers, mineral oil, and food coloring that produced some relief. Eventually, the words became a generic phrase for any worthless, ineffective, and fake preparation or deceptive communication.
It’s unclear whether Beaverton’s earliest stores sold patent medicines. If not, these “sure panaceas for every ailment under the sun”1 were widely available in Portland and Salem.

The federal government stepped in to regulate these products with their imaginative names and outrageous claims by passing the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. The law, which was vehemently opposed by a trade group known as the Proprietary Association, banned the sale of adulterated or mislabeled food and drug products. It also required that active components be listed on packaging. Furthermore, drugs would have to meet specific purity levels. It was among the first consumer protection rulings in the country.

1 Chicago Herald, December 1884


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This post was written by Michael Wong