Health - Treatments
By: - at February 7, 2013

Social History of Patent Medicines

During the late 1700s and ending with the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906, patent medicines reached their height of popularity and use.  This time period is plagued by ignorance on both sides of the doctor patient paradigm.  Patent medicines refer to the tonics or tinctures that were sold on bold promises made by their manufacturer to alleviate all sorts of conditions instead of seeing a physician.  By making use of print advertising's gaining popularity as well as showmanship, these products claimed to cure conditions ranging from menstrual cramps to much more serious diseases like tuberculosis (known during this time period as consumption).  Patent medicines are one of the first examples of consumer products that relied solely on successfully executed advertising campaigns, often contained toxic and medically questionable ingredients, and owe much of their success to the period's lack of government medical regulations and standards.

Growth of Newspapers
newspaperThe period before the Civil War had very little readership of newspapers.  Literacy rates were low and due to the lack of demand for papers circulation rates were kept low.  Newspapers in early colonial times were primarily used for political reasons and served as a means to rally political fervor among the colonies during the revolutionary period. One of the most famous early American newspaper men was Benjamin Franklin with his Connecticut Gazette.  These early papers were printed weekly and had circulation rates as low as 500 copies.  This all changed during the 1830s with the availability of something called the penny press.  The penny press advanced printing technology allowing for thousands of copies to be cheaply printed every day.

During these early days of newspapers a very small proportion of the American population could read and even fewer could write effectively.  The population of the United States at the time of the signing of the U.S. Constitution is estimated to be around 3 million. Of these 3 million Americans approximately 60 percent could read but by 1870 the U.S. population had grown to 38.5 million with a literacy rate of 80 percent (mcsweeneys.net).  With a much larger literate population this time period saw a boom in the newspaper industry that directly correlates with the most successful era for patent medicines.

Print Advertising
growth of print advertisingNewspapers during the 1800s as well as today rely on advertisers to fund their operations.  Newspapers have extremely high costs of operation including printing, journalist and staff payroll, and distribution costs. Without the financial compensation made by advertisers, newspapers could not even break even much less turn a profit.  With the growth of online resources in the early 2000s newspapers saw a sharp decrease in profits.  Looking back to the 1800s newspapers were experiencing a period of growth and a demand for advertisers.  One of the most popular advertisers during this period were the patent medicine manufacturers.  These products have a parallel growth with the newspaper industry as well as a symbiotic relationship.

The first print advertisements or display advertisements were predominately for consumer products.  Patent medicines can be best classified as a consumer product although they were sold under the guise of being mystically medicinal.  Patent medicines advertised extremely frequently and there is account of one patent medicine manufacturer running over 37 display advertisements in the same edition.  Newspapers were seen as the best way to reach potential customers but were not the only means of promotion for patent medicines.

Promotional Activities
Circulars, pamphlets, and traveling theatrical shows incorporating pageantry were also used to market these products.  One product named Aromatic Lozenges of Steel, a product used for impotency, used poetry in their circular.

"The healthful balm from Nature's secret spring, the bloom of health, and life, to man will bring; As from her depths the magic liquid flows, to calm our sufferings, and assuage our woes," (Young, 172).

promotional conceptOther products used a traveling show that would go from town to town incorporating an elaborate play featuring Native Americans. The play showed a white man suffering from tuberculosis and in it Native Americans came to his rescue presenting the patent medicine. The man would ingest it and immediately be cured.  These plays used characteristics of the brand, typically these medicines made claims of ancient healing herbs or Native American secrets, to embellish the healing properties of the patent medicine.  The patent medicine manufacturers were kings of promotion and suggestion. By using the fear of illness and disease to their favor, manufactures took sales a step further hoping that eventually people would purchase these products even when they were healthy.  In an attempt to use patent medicines as preventative medicine these tonics became a part of a daily medical treatment for thousands. 

healthcare professional giving injectionDuring outbreaks of yellow fever and tuberculosis, patent medicine manufactures saw huge spikes in sales.  Layperson and doctor alike knew very little about infectious diseases and with the fear of death looming over most of the population it was almost too easy for the manufacture who used fear as a powerful sales ally.  Unfortunately most of these claims were unfounded and the so called medicines had little or no medicinal value at all.  Other early advertising techniques like alliteration were also implemented.  Makers of these patent medicines used almost every advertising and promotional tool to prey on the perceptions of a mostly uneducated population when it comes to illness and disease.

Unfortunately the general public wasn't the only ones who were ignorant when it came to infectious diseases.  Doctors during this time period knew very little about the diseases they were attempting to treat and also got caught up in the zeal of patent medicine's advertisements and claims.  There are even accounts of legal cases that resulted due to physicians using these products to treat the sick where the patient did not improve and later died. 

avoiding infectious disease

The promotional and advertising techniques used by these manufacturers caught both patient and physician alike in the empty promises of patent medicines.




Patent Medicine Formulas
During the heyday of patent medicines there was an overwhelming attitude that the worse a medicine tasted the more healing properties it possessed.  This attitude was shared in both the medical and pharmaceutical community.  With this attitude came extremely disgusting tasting formals incorporating a wide range of ingredients.  Often patent medicine makers used a wide variety of botanical ingredients in their attempt to position themselves as a modern day apothecary or medicine man. 

magic spells

By employing a hint of mysticism, everyday ingredients became magical in the eyes of the purchaser when often the main ingredients were as simple as vinegar or creosote.  Creosote is a petroleum based product that is found in railroad ties and acts as a preservation tool.  Creosote was the main ingredient in the earlier mentioned Aromatic Lozenges of Steel and has little or no medicinal value.  The medicinal qualities of the ingredients in patent medicines were mostly unfounded and their success was largely based on an ignorant population and extremely strong promotional activities.  There were many patent medicines available but at their core they shared three main ingredients: suggestion, promotion, and fear.

Addictive and Toxic Ingredients
poison bottleThe most popular patent medicines often contained alcohol as well as other intoxicating substances.  By using alcohol discomfort could be temporarily masked and immediate relief was experienced.  There were no healing benefits from patent medicines.  These tonics acted mostly as a symptom masker or duller.

Any healing a patient may have been experiencing was mostly attributed to the psychosomatic properties of the placebo effect mixed with the psychoactive properties of narcotics like cocaine and opium.  Substances like cocaine and opium drastically alter perception and mood where the tradeoff to the patient is a temporary feeling of recovery.  This false feeling of improvement proved to be fatal in some cases.  There are accounts of cases where extremely sick individuals took doses of patent medicines, got out of bed, and went out into the cold.  Soon theses very sick patients' conditions worsened where many of them ended up dead.  Not all patients died from using patent medicines and a majority became strongly chemically addicted to the patent medicines they strongly believed were making them healthy.

old apothecaryPatients soon became addicted to these powerful drugs and soon craved these tonics and tinctures even when they were not sick.  Patent medicine manufacturers took this opportunity and began suggesting their products as preventative medicine.  Patients were unknowingly doing great harm to their mind and bodies by becoming dependent on opium and cocaine all while believing they were taking care of their health. The selling of a product based on unsubstantiated health claims that also is potentially damaging is what made patent medicines so dangerous.  Even more frightening is that some of these tinctures contained mercury which is extremely dangerous to human beings; especially sick human beings.  There is an account of two competing patent medicine manufacturers using an advertisement claiming that they were now mercury free in comparison to their competitor whose product still contained mercury.  It is hard to believe with today's labeling standards and Food and Drug Administration regulation that a company could knowingly sell a product containing this extremely toxic substance.  During the late 1700s and ending with the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906, stringent controls as far as labeling and product composition disclosure did not exist allowing for the proliferation of patent medicines.

Laissez-Faire Drug Formulation
Patent medicines can owe much of their success to the extremely disorganized, uneducated, and unregulated medical community of the time.  Pharmaceuticals had little or no governmental controls or regulation as far as labeling and purity standards.  Due to this Laissez-Faire attitude toward public health, research and development costs associated with bringing a patent medicine to market were extremely low.  Today's barriers to entry associated with modern pharmaceuticals simply did not exist, and the result was an overwhelming number of tonics and tinctures saturating the market.  Often the formulas for patent medicines were stumbled on with little chemical or medicinal planning.  There were no long term side effect studies conducted, and too often patients ingested these magical tinctures with very little concern as to the physiological impact these medicines made on their bodies.

laid back drug policyManufactures would experiment by mixing all sorts of ingredients together and for a lack of better words resulted to winging it as far as formulation planning.  Often the little medical research that was available was extrapolated when choosing herbs and minerals during product formulation.  Typically a patent medicine manufacture would consult the mineral and herb references they had on hand and choose herbs based on their believed healing properties.  Most of these conclusions as to the medical viability of the selected herbs were far from scientific, and common knowledge was used in place of scientific fact.  The manufactures were not completely at fault, scientific research at the time was limited but it is hard to see what they were doing as altruistically good.  Profits were above all else the primary objective and one thing is certain of patent medicines: they were extremely profitable.

Doctors and Questionable Training
Today physicians worldwide are held to extreme standards and the occupation of doctor holds a great deal of esteem and respect within the community.  This was not the case during the patent medicine era (beginning in mid 1700s and ending in 1906).  There are accounts of "doctors" allocating their degree through back channels.  One account describes a man marrying a widow whose husband was in fact a doctor.  Upon marriage the man simply changed the name on the widows husband's diploma and began practicing medicine.  Another scary account depicts a man going down to the county clerk's office and presenting a Chinese napkin to the clerk.  He claimed that the napkin was a diploma from a Chinese medical school and received all the proper documentation he needed and went off to start his practice Even at the nation's most prestigious medical school, Harvard Medical, did not require a written exam as late as 1850. 

doctor and money concept

The fear that students would not possess the written skills necessary to pass one was the primary motivation behind offering an oral examination process. People were afraid to seek the help of physicians and this fear was warranted as well as rational.  Often when patients sought the help of physicians they were at death's door and sought medical counsel as a last resort.  People plainly did not seek the help of physicians on a regular basis like they do today many personal reasons.  Behind each person's reason for avoiding doctors are three contributing factors: fear, financial cost, and ineffective treatment techniques.

The general populations' fears mostly stemmed from the often grotesque medical techniques used by physicians during this time.  Patent medicine manufacturers capitalized on the aversion to seeking professional medical help and provided an alternative that was convenient. Sick people often saw patent medicines as a much more elegant and safe means for treating their illness than seeking the assistance of a physician. 

early medical equipment

Doctors frequently recommended certain tonics and tinctures because the manufacturer would cut them a deal or supply them for little or no charge.  The trend of patients seeking the relief of a patent medicine in place of a physician created a demand for doctors to start coming up with their own cure-alls and remedies.  A doctor's endorsement and use of a particular patent medicine was extremely profitable. By putting a doctor's name on a bottle of patent medicine, any healing claims gained some validity and patients were more likely to purchase the product.  Medical devices and their handbooks served as a surgeon's education and sometimes procedures were made popular just by the promotion of procedures requiring certain devises.

Doctors as Dangerous as Disease
Practically mid-evil medical techniques like blood-letting and amputation were two of the most popular medical procedures used by doctors.  Prior to the availability of antibiotics, blood infections would sweep through the body leaving amputation as the only viable treatment.  Blood-letting is an ancient technique that was first used by native peoples all over the world and modernly was executed by attaching leeches to the patient during the procedure. 

Hirudotherapy - Or Blood-letting Facilitated with Live Leeches
Hirudotherapy - Or Blood-letting Facilitated with Live Leeches

The belief was that by draining a patient of upwards of 80 percent of their blood, any diseases would be removed with the discarded blood and allow for healthy blood to be produced in its place.  Many patients passed out from the loss of blood and it is unclear if any patients actually recovered or benefited from the procedure. Many patients died shortly after the procedure was executed either as a result of the loss of blood or from the illness that had led them to a physician in the first place.

scary surgeon

The medical environment has drastically changed since the end of the patent medicine era but there are still themes that remain. Doctors are not in the business of curing disease but rather providing solutions to managing the symptoms of sick patients.  If there were cures for diseases like AIDS and common cancers would pharmaceutical manufacturers be inclined to share them with the public?  Unfortunately the short answer is no, and from a business stand point providing a cure to diseases that require long-term care would be financial suicide.  Chemotherapy and antiviral treatments are profitable in the long run and rely on repeat business similar to patent medicines.  Manufacturers relied on patients coming back time and time again to make purchases and likewise pharmaceutical companies are most profitable when they require patients to take them for the rest of their lives.  The best medicine for everyone is preventive medicine in the form of nutrition and regular testing for cancers.  Taking care of our bodies by eating healthier foods, restricting caloric intake, and getting preventive exams are our best chance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle.  Medicine is never the answer and unfortunately by the time a patient begins a medication routine the disease has progressed to a point that medication is mandatory.  Often if steps were taken earlier on the patient could recover without medication or at least result to taking them for a limited time period.  Patent medicines have shown us the ugly side of medicine and set a precedent of full disclosure which is how medicines are marketed and sold today.  Thanks to the advances in medical training and technology patent medicines are a thing of the past.  Do you have any experiences similar to patent medicines in that you were advised to take a tonic or natural remedy?  What was it and did it help you?

Works Cited:
"McSweeney's Internet Tendency: The State of Publishing: Literacy Rates." McSweeney's Internet Tendency. N.p., n.d. Web. 05 Feb. 2013.
Young, James Harvey. The Toadstool Millionaires. Princeton (New Jersey): Princeton UP, 1961. Print.


 

 

 

 

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