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Sweet Extract Of Hokum

June 2024
14min read

Patent medicines were usually neither patented nor medicinal, which is not to say they didn’t (and don’t) have any effect

If you can identify the period when gentlemen wore genuine ormolu lobs attached to their watches and the butcher threw in a slice of liver for the eat when he wrapped up the meat order, then you are close to establishing the date of the Golden Age of Secret Remedies. No family circle was complete without the brown or green bottle on sideboard or shell. Sometimes the contents were murky, mysterious, evil in taste and smell. Sometimes they looked like whiskey, smelled like whiskey, and lasted like whiskey, for the best of reasons: they were whiskey. The presence of generous amounts of ethyl alcohol was necessary, according to a familiar explanation, lor the “preservation” of the medicinal ingredients. Two tablespoonfuls, taken before a meal, produced an agreeable sense of well-being or levitation, thai walking-on-air feeling often associated with a dollop of the Good Creature.

This was the period call it t lie early 1900’s when beards signified age and wisdom, the learned professions. So the home panaceas usually portrayed on their labels the luxurious whiskers of the doctor-proprietor. His license was of obscure origin. But there wasn’t anything obscure about his ownership of the name of his cure-all or his indignant fulminations against designing men who plotted to steal his customers with a similar article. Their claims were fraudulent because his medicine was patented.

The idea of proprietary medicines being patented is a stubborn bit of American folklore, accepted for generations as gospel truth and even repeated recently as a serious definition by the distinguished American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language in these words: “ patent medicine . A drug or other medical preparation that is protected by a patent and can lie bought without a prescription.”

A few patent applications were made, it is true, in the very early days of the United States Patent Office, when the law was first drawn and the examiners were not discriminating. Between 1793 and 1836, especially, papers were filed by rustic applicants who did not understand their grave error in revealing, as they were required to do, the ingredients they used. Disclosure of the formula was the last thing an experienced promoter had in mind, since his concoction would be immediately recognized either as harmful or as an innocuous granny remedy like sarsaparilla syrup mixed with oil of wintergreen flavoring. If a patent was applied for and granted, a new difficulty then arose. The formula would by law become public property in seventeen years- a sure way of going out of business and losing all the good will built up by years of gaudy advertising.


What the owners of nost rums (literal meaning: “our own”) were really interested in was not the contents of the bottle, which were subject to change without notice and were of very minor consequence, but the legal protection of the trademark. This was achieved by patenting the unique shape of the bottle and by copyrighting the design of the label and the printed matter wrapped around the package. Before the copyright law existed, the trade name eould be defended under eommon law. After it became registerable (but not patentable) in the Patent Office, the name became a property whose ownership didn’t lapse after a mere seventeen years but could be monopolized for all eternity.

The contents of the bottle changed with changing circumstances. For example, when the United States Treasury- ruled that Peruna, a little gold mine owned by genial Dr. Samuel B. Hartman, of Columbus, Ohio, must have a detectable medicinal effect or face taxation as a straight alcoholic beverage, the doctor, a former Bible salesman, complied by dumping generous amounts of blackthorn bark, a powerful cathartic, into the Peruna retorts. There followed a national rumbling of the bowels that was heard from Maine to California, but especially in those states where citizens preferred taking their spiritus frumentu under an alias. They could feel secure in the knowledge, gained from advertisements in their church papers, that the nostrum was recommended by “An Indefatigable and Life-long Worker in the Temperance Cause.”

When our century was young, nearly every drug, notions, or general merchandise store had a special patentmedicine department, arranged alongside the horse and poultry remedies. This was not incongruous because many of the medicines were, like Dr. Bennetf s Golden Liniment, “for horses … equally as efficacious as upon the human family.” One honest druggist, George “Pop” Stansfield, of Topeka, Kansas, received national attention when he displayed a large sign in his store that announced: “Wc sell patent medicines but do not recommend them.” Another skeptic, also from Kansas, was L. W. Howc, the sage of Atchison, who took notice of Dr. David Jaync, the Philadelphia tapeworm king, in a characteristic paragraph in his Atchison Globe: “Every time we see big, fat George Shitllett, we can’t help laughing over the fact that when he isn’t feeling well, his wife makes him lake Jayne’s Vermifuge, a worm medicine for children.”

But Dr. Jayne could laugh, too. Mis darkbrown-tasting mixture in the green oval bottle built a $300,000 mansion with doors ol solid walnut and silver doorknobs and with his daughters’ laces sculptured on every mantel. When he died, it took a will of twenty-rive pages to disburse his three million dollars’ worth of assets.

Many fortuitous circumstances came together in the mid-nineteenth century to make it possible for a young shoemaker or bookbinder with a formula for a lung balsam or corn cure, an intuitive grasp of popular psychology, and an elastic conscience to make a fortune and leave behind a catchy-sounding trade name like Radway’s Ready Relief or Hostetter’s Celebrated Stomach Bitters, often good for a run of a hundred years. There was, first of all, a splendid propaganda opening provided by the airing of tedious quarrels between rival schools of regular medicine. Other factors favorable to the “patents were the rapid spread of literacy, cheap postage, improvements in printing and graphic reproduction, the extension of the national railroad network, and, oddly enough, the development of the religious press. And war. The wounds and diseases of the veterans who survived the Civil War introduced into the comnumity-at-large new mental patterns of fear and faith fear of ill health and regular doctors, a touching laith in Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People. Or Hosteller’s Bitters. The War Department bought this .stomachic in carload lots lor the Union armies. It remained a medical standby of the Grand Army of the Republic for decades and supported four generations of Hostellers in a state of affluence to which they easily accustomed themselves.

By the 1880’s self-made doctors, wandering Indians, and cleverly personalized corporations were catering; to every imaginable pathology or fantasy with lost-manhood tablets, bust developers, dyspepsia pills, abortifacients, and tuberculosis “cures.” They also produced treatments lor a class of diseases delicately associated with “youthful indiscretions. All employed the same propaçandistic devices: spreading skepticism ol the medical profession, overwhelming the patient with sympathy, parading the testimonials of those who honestly believed thev had been benefited, while subtly inducing by suggestion the frightening symptoms so graphically described on the label. The literature of the proprietaries threatened, scolded, and confused t hose who were sick or worried, hut en- tered always to their determination to make their own diagnosis of what ailed them.


A major theme was a condition known as female weakness. Under this vague phrase were gathered all the ills of the female physiology and psyche. The most gifted healer who worked this vein was Mrs. Lydia E Pinkham, who found her fortune and apotheosis in a herb medicine of her own concoction, Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. “Only a woman,” declared Lydia, “can understand a woman’s ills,” a characteristically pithy observation loaded with overtones of feminine rebellion and hostility to men.

Mrs. Pinkham, whom publicist Elbert Hubbard compared favorably with Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton, Julia Ward Howe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Dorothea Dix, Joan of Arc, and other notables, is well worth meeting. Lydia Pinkham, née Estes, the daughter of a shoemaker, was born February 9, 1819, in Lynn, Massachusetts. In this “City of Shoes ” there also flourished other remarkable women, such as Susan B. Anthony, MaryBaker Eddy, and Mrs. Mary Sergeant Neal Clove, the water-cure physician and reformer, who introduced to Lynn the bloomer costume and brown-bread supper, hard beds, mesmerism, and free love. Educated locally, Lydia bubbled with the heady doctrines that were floating in the air of eastern Massachusetts like wild yeasts—Swedenborgianism, phrenology, temperance, Sylvester Graham’s vegetarian faith, women’s rights, spirtualism, botanic medicine, and hat money.

Married in 1843 to an ineffectual husband, Isaac Pinkham, Mrs. Pinkham had four sons, three of whom she survived, and a daughter. When Mr. Pinkham’s chief occupation proved to be losing money in real estate, Lydia, in desperately, put her hand to supporting the family. Like many New England housewives Mrs. Pinkham had prepared her own home remedies— fennel teas, rhubarb catharics, and the like. But the winner was her “vegetable” nostrum for the indispositions of the female reproductive apparatus. For years she had boiled and strained her sovereign remedy in the home kitchen and given it away as a gesture of neignborliness. But after the 1873 panic, with her family in actual want, Lydia turned professional. The Vegetable Compound made its commercial debut in 1875. Early in 1876 a label was registered in the Patent Office. Later the government found that the “sure eure contained 17.9 percent alcohol and 0.56 crains of vegetable extractive material to each 100 c.c., consisting of such squawmedicine therapeutic agents as Alestris (True Unicorn) and Asclepias (Pleurisy Root), which had disappeared from the United States Pharmacopoeia some forty years before. But even the harshest critics of the Vegetable Compound never claimed that it did its users any harm, though l hey insisted that it didn’t do any good, either.

The Pinkham children filled and corked the bottles and folded handbills. Mother got up the medicine and demonstrated a real Hair for publicity. Son Dan, too, was touched with promotional genius. One of his ideas was to scatter little cards in the parks of Brooklyn, New York, “so small …” he pointed out in a family letter, “that it wouldn’t pay for rag and paper pickers to pick them up”; another gambit, which worked out very well, was to drop personal notes, appearing to have been accidentally lost, in cemeteries just before the Memorial Day crowds arrived. The notes urgently recommended, of course, the regular useof Lydia’s “Greatest Remedy in the World.” But the gut idea was to put Mrs. Pinkham’s picture on the package, right above where it said “Contains 18 per cent of Alcohol.” How Lydia, an enthusiastic member of the W.C.T.U. , adjusted her principles to this generous infusion of spirits, or how, being a Victorian lady, she endured the exploitation of her picture, history does not disclose. No doubt she found that the end justified the means. At any rate, she died rich in worldly goods, which became the subject of bitter litigation among the surviving Pinkham stockholders. Lydia was blessed also in the gifts of the spirit, for she was friend, confidante, and benefactress of untold thousands of women who had some maladjustment in their lives and had responded gratefully to her invitation to “Write to Mrs. Pinkham.”

“OH-H-H, we’ll sing of Lydia Pinkham…”
Women and Children First
“After using your product for one week, I am happy to state…”

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when country editors were not well supplied with portraits of prominent women, the electrotype of Mrs. Pinkham was often the only one to be found in the print shop, with the result that her face was presented at one time or another as a recent picture of Lily Langtry. as Dr. Mary Walker, the lady who wore men’s trousers, as President Cleveland’s new bride, as Sarah Bernhardt, and even as Queen Victoria. The cast-iron smile of the famous picture, the black silk dress with a bit of white ruching at the neck, the evident sincerity and respectability of homey, trustworthy, sadly sweet Mrs. Pinkham, tickled the national sense of humor. There were Pinkham jokes and editorial pleasantries. Bill Nye, the professional humorist, nominated Mrs. Pinkham for President; college boys wrote in pseudonymously for advice on timidity, frigidity, and similar intimate matters, and they sang merrily in fraternity houses, to the tune of the old Gospel hymn. “I Will Sing of My Redeemer”:

Tell me, Lydia, of your secrets, And the wounders you perform, How you take the sick and ailing And restore them to the norm? Mrs. Jones of Walla Walla, Mrs. Smith of Kankakee, Mrs. Cohen, Mrs. Murphy Sing your praises lustily There’s a baby in every bottle, So the old quotation ran, But the Federal Trade Commission Still insists you’ll need a man. Refrain: OH-H-H, we’ll sing of Lydia Pinkham And her love for the Human Race. How she sells her Vegetable Compound, And the papers, the papers they publish, they publish her FACE!

No objections were ever raised by the Pinkham Medicine Company to the free advertising contained in the quips and the sometimes-ribald verses about the efficacy of their product.

Lydia didn’t have long to enjoy her success. She died in 1883, but her fame went marching on. For years the Ladies Home Journal tried in exasperation to explain to its readers that Lydia had gone to her reward and that when suffering women wrote to her, the reply came from a corps of ten-dollar-a-week clerks. Edward Bok, the editor of the Journal , even printed a photograph of Lydia’s tombstone. It made no difference. His readers preferred old error to new truth and steadfastly clung to the belief that their medical friend was still slaving away for them in her laboratory in Lynn, Massachusetts. Thousands of sufferers continued to write about their troubles. They took the medicine. They felt better. Who can say flatly that they were absolutely cheated? The Vegetable Compound did, after all, provide the customers with psychological sedation and the geniality of a cocktail.

Many of the secret remedies were, however, cruelly vicious, especially that category containing habitforming drugs. Dr. Sway me’s Wild Cherry Tonic, for example, which “cured” tuberculosis, depended for its analgesic effect upon morphine, “the draught … that bids Consumption fly.” The usage of opium derivatives, such as codeine or cocaine, was so general during and after the Civil War that addiction was commonly described by the euphemism “the Army disease.” Especially insidious were the catarrh powders and the soothing syrups whose content of morphine sulphate made it certain that teething children would not fret. Even more brutal, if one can make a very fine distinction, were the mail-order drug-habit “cures” that followed the “hair of the dog” theory. “Practically all of these advertised remedies are simply the drug itself in concealed form,” wrote Samuel Hopkins Adams in his exposé, The Great American Fraud (1906). No wonder, then, that the “Gradual Reduction Treatment” was so gradual that the victims were under treatment for up to twenty years.

The contact between those who were doctoring and the picturesque characters who supplied the necessary merchandise was even more intimate when the medicineshow artists came to town; for example, such a remarkable individual as “Doc,” or sometimes “Colonel,” John E. Healy. Healy travelled the eastern parts of the United States in a big, brightly painted wagon in the interest of the Healy Liver Pad Concert Company. After a free show by the three performers who made up the cast there was a subtle change of mood. The Doctor-Colonel came forward and gravely began his pitch: “These pads, ladies and gentlemen, contain no harmful chemicals …” This was a true statement. According to competing professors the pads were stuffed with sawdust that had been doped to “smell like a drugstore.”

Later Healy, in an inspired moment, thought of peddling Indian herb medicines through the Indians themselves, thus capitalizing on curiosity about the Old West. The Indians would arrive in a town like Colebrook, New Hampshire, and set up their tepees with their medicinal herbs bubbling in a pot right in front of the tents. Out of this imaginative concept came the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company. In its great days this firm sent out from seventy-five to a hundred complete carnival companies in a single season, known as the Kicks in the circus world. Each one was under the guidance of a long-haired “grinder,” or “Indian Agent,” who gave the medical lecture decked out in a yellow buckskin costume and looking like General G’fcster in Cassily Adams’ gory but fascinating color lithograph, Custer’s Last Fight .

The scenario for the Kicks, which originally called for cooking up the medicines in front of the wigwams, proved cumbersome. So Healy and his partner, “Texas Charley” Bigelow, settled for having the Indians out on the western plains ship the dry botanicals to New Haven, Connecticut, where they were processed in a factory at 521 Grand Avenue. It was known in company nomenclature as the Principal Wigwam.

There were also skillful women practitioners of tailgate medicine. Among them Madame DuBois should at least be mentioned. She travelled with a brass band and pulled teeth; also Princess Iola, née Eva Billings, of Quincy, Illinois, who pitched complexion soap, which was whatever soap was sold at the local dime store, cut up into small chunks and rewrapped in foil. Another exotic princess, Little Lotus Blossom, was in fact a Minnesota farm girl who lectured on Tiger Fat, a salve, and on Vital Sparks, a remarkable discovery from faraway Outer Mongolia that pepped up aging males who were getting worried about the performance of marital duties. For this charade Lotus Blossom wore a mandarin coat and a little Chinese skull cap. Later she developed a scientific spiel under the name Madame V. Pasteur. The V. was authentic since her name was Violet. Madame never mentioned Louis Pasteur, but she had a cultivated manner, and for this routine she wore an academic cap and gown and referred frequently during her discourse to Ponce de Léon, the bacteriologist Elie Metchnikoff, and the body toxins. In each of her roles Violet followed the stern law of social Darwinism as practiced by such star performers on the gasoline-torch circuit as Prince Nanzetta, Big Foot Bill Wallace, and Hal the Healer: “Take the easy dough and get out of town fast.” The guys and dolls who were masters of long con (slow, deliberate persuasion) and short con (snappy, aggressive delivery) are album memories now, retired by burdensome taxes and local regulations, closed towns, and the competition of more sophisticated forms of mass entertainment.


Curiously enough, the advances made in chemistry, technology, and medical research have created vastly increased opportunities for the operations of charlatans, as it has become more difficult for the laity to discriminate between genuine achievements and clever frauds. Whatever is new and interesting to the general public has always provided a topical approach for quackery. Electricity led on to Electric Bitters; the germ theory of disease, to Radam’s Microbe Killer. Publicity about the newer knowledge of the glands of internal secretion suggested to the imaginative proprietors of the Capricorn Chemical Company the idea of goat gland tablets.

The serious objection to quack medicines was that they were useless, that they delayed or prevented the patient from getting proper treatment, and, at the worst, that they contained deleterious substances, including narcotics. The effort to establish some federal control in this area dates as far back as 1879. It built up rapidly in the period 1898-1904, and a consumer-protection law, despite bitter opposition from the powerful Proprietary Association, was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt under the name of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. This was the most significant legislation of the Progressive Era in the field of “consumerism,” subsequently strengthened by amendment and legal interpretation and enlarged to cover therapeutic mechanical devices, such as the electric-belt fake, the wire-and-gas-pipe Oxydonor, brain child of Dr. Hercules Sanche, and the magic black box of Dr. Albert Abrams, which gave off a humming sound. Abrams, a licensed physician prominent enough to be listed in Who’s Who in America , had wandered, alas, down the primrose path of quackery, but he was solaced by the number of tax-free dollars in his bank account.

Some of these gaudy deceivers have left permanent monuments in one form or another. Gaylord Wilshire, who invented a contraption called the I-On-A-Co, a sort of magic horse collar worn around the neck, was one of the great con men of all time and is memorialized in Wilshire Boulevard, in Los Angeles. And Dr. J. C. Ayer, an astute businessman who channelled his hair-restorer and cherry-pectoral money into paper and cotton mills, had a town, Ayer, Massachusetts, named after him. Specimens of the gadgets that flashed lights and made interesting noises still exist, as memorials to the fool who could not be saved from his folly, in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the American Medical Association, the California Department of Public Health, and the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. Each exhibit testifies to the selling power of pseudoscientific jargon.

The masters of medical humbug have been inconvenienced but not eliminated by the authority that has been confided to various governmental agencies: the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Post Office Department. A few years ago we saw the spectacular rise, and fortunately the steep decline, of Dudley Joseph LcBlanc’s Hadacol. Hadacol consisted of vitamins, minerals, honey, and firewater and was brilliantly promoted by the old, reliable medical con methods. There was a moment of truth, mingled with levity, when Groucho Marx once asked LeBlanc on a television program what Hadacol was good for. Its pappy replied in a flash of misunderstanding, “Hadacol was good for five million dollars last year.”

Grandfather was a mark, and no mistake about it ( mark . Synonyms: rube, chump, simp, goof, gill). Yet the take in violation of federal laws even today is around one billion dollars a year, and the depredations of medical banditry get less amusing as they come closer to us.


“If we add to this billion dollars the direct costs of local quackery and the indirect costs of health misinformation,” says Wallace F. Janssen, historian of the Food and Drug Administration, “I believe a total figure of $2 billion represents a conservative estimate. The costs in terms of human values are, of course, beyond computing.”

Door-to-door pill peddlers, often little old ladies in sneakers, still ply their folksy trade (“We’re not doctors, see? But if you want to get rid of that lump in your breast for only seventeen dollars a month …”). Worthless diagnostic machines proliferate for the treatment of exophthalmic goiter, or what have you. It took the Federal Trade Commission sixteen years, one hundred and forty-nine hearing sessions, eleven thousand pages of testimony, more than a million dollars, and a trip to the Supreme Court to eliminate the little word liver from the trade name and advertising of Carter’s Little Liver Pills. But it was legally determined, at long last, that the seventy-year-old preparation, a laxative, did not have any perceptible effect upon the liver.

A similar battle, with the outcome still in doubt, now rages between the government forces and the makers of Geritol, a vitamin proposition that for eleven years has defied the orders of the Federal Trade Commission to cease and desist from claiming that there is a widespread pathological condition known to medical science as Tired Blood. Geritol comes to the rescue with “iron power,” provided that one has iron deficiency, which is highly unlikely.

How does Geritol go about enriching the hemoglobin, putting the old moxie back into your blood cells, right from the first spoonful?

Well, you see …

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