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:
Alcohol was frequently not divulged as an ingredient in patent medicines, even when the product was marketed for children’s use:
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.
The Carter Medicine Company introduced products such as “Little Liver Pills” and “Little Nerve Pills” with eye-catching imagery and suspect declarations.
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.”
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.