MCNY Blog: New York Stories

Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org

Hygienic whiskey and little nerve pills: The rise of direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising

Before the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the manufacture and sale of so-called “medicine” in the United States was unregulated. This wild west atmosphere enabled the creation of products known as patent medicines. Despite their name, patent medicines were not actually patented. Instead, they were proprietary concoctions that promised cures for all kinds of ailments. At best, most patent medicines were useless and ineffective; at worst, many of them contained addictive or otherwise dangerous substances. Consumers were ignorant of the ingredients contained in patent medicines, since the government did not require manufacturers to list them. The advent of cheap printing methods such as chromolithography in the mid-19th century provided a perfect vehicle for creators of patent medicines to market their products.

Alcohol has long been thought by many cultures to have medicinal properties. It is an antiseptic and the methods used to produce it often require sterilization of the liquid. People have added alcohol to polluted water to make it more tolerable to drink. It is no surprise, then, that many patent medicines included alcohol as an ingredient. In addition, alcohol itself was marketed as a medicine:

Lithograph issued by Robertson, Seibert & Shearman. Gilbert & Parsons, Hygienic Whiskey. For Medical Use. 1860. Museum of the City of New York. 56.153.14

Lithograph issued by Robertson, Seibert & Shearman. Gilbert & Parsons, Hygienic Whiskey. For Medical Use. 1860. Museum of the City of New York. 56.153.14

 

"A Certain Cure" for Cholera Colic Cramps Dysentery, Chills & Fever, is a delightful & healthy beverage.

“A Certain Cure” for Cholera Colic Cramps Dysentery, Chills & Fever, is a delightful & healthy beverage. Museum of the City of New York. 56.153.15

Alcohol was frequently not divulged as an ingredient in patent medicines, even when the product was marketed for children’s use:

 

Printed by Wemple & Company. Parker's Tonic. 1870-1900. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.99.306

Printed by Wemple & Company. Parker’s Tonic. 1870-1900. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.99.306

No matter the disorder – sick headache, nervous excitement, melancholy, pimples, a general feeling of exhaustion and weakness, to name just a few – there was a patent medicine claiming to cure it.

Printed by Donaldson Brothers (Firm). Nichols' Bark & Iron. ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. 43.234.33

Printed by Donaldson Brothers (Firm). Nichols’ Bark & Iron. ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. 43.234.33

 

Printed by Donaldson Brothers (Firm). Nichols' Bark & Iron. ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. 43.234.33

Printed by Donaldson Brothers (Firm). Nichols’ Bark & Iron. ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. 43.234.33 (verso)

 

Dr. Morse's Compound Syrup of Yellow Dock Root - The Blood Purifier. 1870-1890. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.99.630

Dr. Morse’s Compound Syrup of Yellow Dock Root – The Blood Purifier. 1870-1890. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.99.630

The Carter Medicine Company introduced products such as “Little Liver Pills” and “Little Nerve Pills” with eye-catching imagery and suspect declarations.

Use Carter's Little Nerve Pills. 1870-1900. Museum of the City of New York. X2012.98.24

Use Carter’s Little Nerve Pills. 1870-1900. Museum of the City of New York. X2012.98.24

Printed by Gies & Co. Use Carter's Little Nerve Pills. 1870-1900. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.99.84

Printed by Gies & Co. Use Carter’s Little Nerve Pills. 1870-1900. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.99.84

 

Printed by Gies & Co. Use Carter's Little Nerve Pills. 1870-1900. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.99.84 (verso)

Printed by Gies & Co. Use Carter’s Little Nerve Pills. 1870-1900. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.99.84 (verso)

 

Unlike other companies featured in this blog, the Carter Medicine Co. still exists today, under the name Wallace Pharmaceuticals.

Some companies used the deceptive advertising of others as a boost to their own. A cough syrup advertisement published in the January 2, 1901 issue of Christian Nation touted Hale’s Honey of Horehound and Tar as “An Honest Medicine”: “It is an honest medicine because the ills (of the throat, chest or lungs) which it is advertized to benefit, are the ills for which Hale’s Honey, Horehound and Tar are universally prescribed.”

Hale's of Honey, Horehound and Tar Cures Coughs, Colds, &c. ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. 40.275.239

Hale’s Honey of Horehound and Tar Cures Coughs, Colds, &c. ca. 1880. Museum of the City of New York. 40.275.239

The golden age of patent medicines ended at the turn of the 20th century, when journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams published a series of scathing exposés in Collier’s:

Gullible America will spend this year some seventy-five millions of dollars in the purchase of patent medicines. In consideration of this sum it will swallow huge quantities of alcohol, an appalling amount of opiates and narcotics, a wide assortment of varied drugs ranging from powerful and dangerous heart depressants to insidious liver stimulants; and, far in excess of all other ingredients, undiluted fraud. For fraud, exploited by the skillfulest of advertising bunco men, is the basis of the trade. Should the newspapers, the magazines and the medical journals refuse their pages to this class of advertisements, the patent-medicine business in five years would be as scandalously historic as the South Sea Bubble, and the nation would be the richer not only in lives and money, but in drunkards and drug-fiends saved.

The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 regulated labels, but did not limit advertising. Controversy over direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical marketing continues to this day. Currently, the United States and New Zealand are the only countries that allow this practice.

Most of the objects featured in this blog belong to the Museum’s Collection on Advertising and were digitized and cataloged under a National Endowment for Humanities grant.

 

neh_logo_horizontal_rgbAny views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

 

About Lauren Robinson

Digital Projects Cataloger

One comment on “Hygienic whiskey and little nerve pills: The rise of direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical advertising

  1. Pingback: Lost Cures: Jacques & Marsh, Druggists | MCNY Blog: New York Stories

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