Patent medicines first appeared in England in the 1600s. When a medication was patented, its formula was owned by the patent holder. No one else could duplicate and sell the medication. To qualify for a patent, a medicine only had to be original. It did not have to be either effective or safe. Because the ingredients of patented remedies had to be listed, many sellers of these types of products never applied for patents. Instead, they registered distinctive trade names in order to market their wares. The ingredients were unspecified but their brand name was unique. In time, all of these medicines being promoted for public sale became known as "patent medicines," whether they were in fact patented or not. Most were promoted as astonishingly effective cures for an equally astonishing range of maladies. For example, an 1800s advertisement for "Dr. Jayne's Alternative" claimed that it cured at least 25 different ailments. These conditions ranged from cancer to skin problems.
Early British Patent Medicines
Among the earliest British patent medicines were "Anderson's Pills," "Daffy's Elixir", and "Lockyear's Pills," all of which date from the 1600s. In the 1700s came "Dr. Batemen's Pectoral Drops," "Dr. Hooper's Female Pills," and "Robert Turlington's Balsam of Life."
Early American Patent Medicines
As British subjects emigrated to America, they brought the concept of patent medicines with them. The first American-made medicine to be patented in Great Britain was "Tuscorora Rice." This product was invented by Mrs. Sibilla Masters and was actually made from Indian corn. Another early American nostrum was "Widow Read's Ointment for the Itch." This product was advertised by Read's son-in-law, Benjamin Franklin, in his Pennsylvania Gazette in 1731. Heavy national advertising would later be the prime means of promoting patent medicine sales in America. In 1796 the first patent issued in the United States for a medicine was granted. Samuel Lee, Jr. was the patent holder and his "Bilious Pills" promised to cure a score of ailments.
Patent Medicines of the 1800s
A popular cure of the 1800s was "Swaim's Panacea." This was a syrup of sarsaparilla introduced by William Swaim in 1820. Swaim ran a six-page advertisement for his Panacea in the 1832 Farmers and Mechanics Almanac. With his ad, he pointed the way toward a new advertising gimmick for patent medicines—the free annual almanac devoted to promoting an individual remedy. Dr. David Jayne launched his series Medical Almanac and Guide to Health in the 1840s to push such medicines as "Jayne's Sanative Pills," "Jayne's Vermifuge," and "Jayne's Alternative." The first Hostetter's American Almanac was published in 1860. It promoted the sale of "Doctor Hostetter's Celebrated Stomach Bitters." This was an unusual product because it had indeed been formulated by a real doctor.
A Popular Patent Medicine
Patent medicines flourished in the United States from the start. They were most popular in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Perhaps the best-known and most enduring among these was Lydia E. Pinkham's "Vegetable Compound." This remedy was devised by Mrs. Lydia Estes Pinkham (1819-1883) of Lynn, Massachusetts, to cure "female complaints." Mrs. Pinkham had been preparing her herbal concoction on her kitchen stove for years. The recipe was supposedly given to her by a machinist in payment of a debt. When the Pinkham fell into near poverty following the panic of 1873, Pinkham's son Dan suggested selling the compound. She produced the remedy and wrote advertising copy, along with a four-page booklet titled Guide for Women.
When the Pinkhams began advertising in the Boston Herald in 1876, a successful mail-order business flourished. When Pinkham's portrait was added to the Compound's label in 1879, sales escalated, and she became the most recognized woman in America. Letters poured in from women all over the country seeking medical advice. Their queries were answered by a staff of women supervised by Pinkham. The business remained in the Pinkham family until 1968, and the Compound was still being marketed in the 1980s.
Ironically, Louis Pasteur's scientifically-based germ theory of disease was brought to the American public by the very unscientific claims of patent medicine peddlers. Chief among these was William Radam, a Prussian emigre residing in Texas. Inspired by Pasteur's discovery of the microbe, Radam developed a medication to fight the microscopic entities within the human body. The result was Radam's "Microbe Killer," patented in 1886. Its popularity was unshaken by analysis revealing it to be 99 percent water and of no real value.
New Marketing Techniques
Patent medicine makers always advertised and promoted their products heavily. The most colorful promotions were the traveling medicine shows and entertainments. These shows existed in colonial times, continued to grow in size and scope during the 1800s, and reached a climax in the 1880s and 1890s. The shows offered a variety of entertainment. Drama, vaudeville, circus, minstrels, and magic were used to pitch the product. The biggest and best-known shows were the "Kickapoo Indian" or Wild West shows staged by John E. Healy and "Texas Charley" Bigelow. As many as 75 Kickapoo shows toured the country at a time. Each troupe was staffed with half-a-dozen Native Americans, a "scout" and several others. An Indian "medicine man" would impressively describe the virtues of the particular remedy in his native language, while the "scout" interpreted his speech. Remedies included the popular "Kickapoo Indian Sagwa," plus "Kickapoo Indian Salve," "Kickapoo Indian Worm Killer," and "Kickapoo Cough Cure."
Another cure falsely attributed to Native Americans was Clark Stanley's "Snake Oil Liniment." Stanley claimed the product originated with the medicine men of the Moki Pueblo in Wolpi, Arizona. He started marketing his remedy in 1886 and promoted it by killing hundreds of rattlesnakes before audiences at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. Analysis, however, showed that Stanley's liniment contained no rattlesnake oil.
Although patent medicines were very popular, concerns began to grow about their ingredients. Many had high levels of alcohol. Lydia Pinkham's, for example, was 19 percent alcohol. The widely sold "Dr. Kilmer's Swamp Root" was 12 percent, and "Hostetter's Bitters" was a dizzying 32 percent. Other products, including medicines for children, were laced with such addictive drugs as heroin, opium, and cocaine. These concerns led to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Patent medicines now had to list their ingredients on packaging labels. A supplementary law passed in 1938 required manufacturers to test their products for safety before marketing them; tests for effectiveness were required as of 1962.
Legitimate Patent Medicines
Not all patent medicines were of the "snake oil" variety. Some of the most familiar legitimate patent medicines originated in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Listerine, an antiseptic and disinfectant, was developed in 1879 by Jordan W. Lambert, cofounder of the Warner (later Warner-Lambert) pharmaceutical firm, and marketed to physicians. The product was named after Joseph Lister (1827-1912). Lister was the English physician who pioneered antiseptic surgery. Lambert's son, Gerald, introduced Listerine to the mass market in 1921. Advertising played heavily on the product's effectiveness in saving the user from the social scourge of halitosis (bad breath).
Other Popular Patent Medicines
In 1897 Felix Hoffmann found a way to synthesize acetylsalicylic acid. In 1899 the Bayer Company began marketing what was to become probably the most popular of all patent medicines, aspirin. New York chemist Charles Henry Phillips coined the name "Milk of Magnesia" in 1880 for his antacid, a white suspension of magnesium hydroxide in water. Lunsford Richardson, a North Carolina pharmacist, developed an external cold remedy in the 1890s that he called Richardson's Croup and Pneumonia Cure Salve. When he renamed his product, sales of Vick's Salve, later Vick's VapoRub, skyrocketed. Ex-Lax, the laxative with a chocolate flavor, was the 1905 invention of a Hungarian-born New York scientist.
Modern-Day Patent Medicines
One of the more modern patent medicines, Alka-Seltzer, was introduced by Miles Laboratories in 1931. Alka-Seltzer is a tablet composed of an antacid, aspirin, and an agent formulated to bubble when immersed in a glass of water. In 1955 the Johnson & Johnson company marketed Tylenol, which uses acetaminophen to relieve pain and reduce fever. This product does the same thing as aspirin but does not cause the side effects. At first a prescription medication, Tylenol became an over-the-counter (OTC) product in 1960.