The term "patent medicine" is associated with drug compounds in the 18th and 19th centuries, sold with colorful names and bogus claims of curing a
universe of ailments.
In ancient times, such medicines were called nostrum remedium, "our remedy" in Latin, hence the name "nostrum." Also known as proprietary medicines,
these concoctions were, for the most part, trademarked medicines but not patented.
Patent medicines originally referred to medications whose ingredients had been granted government protection. But actually, the recipes of most 19th
century patent medicines were not patented. Most producers used ingredients quite similar to their competitors—vegetable extracts laced with ample
doses of alcohol. These proprietary, or "quack" medicines could be deadly, since there was no regulation on their ingredients. They were medicines with
questionable effectiveness whose contents were kept secret.
Originating in England as proprietary medicines manufactured under grants, or "patents of royal favor," to those who provided medicine to the Royal
Family, these medicines were exported to America in the 18th century. Daffy's Elixir Salutis for "colic and griping," Dr. Bateman's Pectoral Drops, and John
Hooper's Female Pills were some of the first English patent medicines to arrive in North America with the first settlers. The medicines were sold by
postmasters, goldsmiths, grocers, tailors and other local merchants.
By the mid-19th century the manufacture of these products had become a major industry in America. Generally high in alcoholic content, the remedies
were popular with people who found alcohol therapeutic. Many concoctions were fortified with morphine, opium, or cocaine. Sadly, some of these
products were labeled for infants and children. Parents seeking relief for their babies from colic often gave these opiate remedies with fatal results.
The remedies claimed to cure or prevent nearly every ailment known to man, including venereal diseases, tuberculosis, indigestion or dyspepsia, arthritis,
baldness, and even cancer. "Female complaints" were often the target of such remedies, offering hope for women to find relief from monthly
discomforts. Bust developers and manhood restorers were also promoted.
Patent medicines reached their zenith in the U.S. in the late 19th century. As the population became more urban and affluent, a ripe target emerged for
entrepreneurs who would thrive in a unregulated marketplace characterized by the dictum, 'caveat emptor'. Communications had expanded, and
newspapers became important for the sale of patent medicines. The rise of advertising in America enabled the growth of patent medicines; this is clearly
seen in the famous ads for the morphine- and alcohol-laced soothing syrups for teething and colicky babies.
The small manufacturers, often family businesses, did not have a monopoly on the market. The ethical pharmaceutical industry, including firms such as
Bayer that generally advertised directly to health professionals, sold their share of patent medicines as well.
From the beginning, some physicians and medical societies were critical of patent medicines. They said the remedies did not cure illnesses, discouraged
the sick from seeking legitimate treatments, and caused alcohol and drug dependency. The temperance movement of the late 19th century provided
another voice of criticism, protesting the use of alcohol in the medicines. By the end of the 19th century, Americans favored laws to force manufacturers
to disclose the remedies' ingredients and use more realistic language in their advertising.
These laws met with fierce resistance from the manufacturers. The Proprietary Association, a trade group of medicine producers, was founded in 1881. The
Association was aided by the press, which had grown dependent on the money received from remedy advertising. By the 1890s, patent medicine
manufacturers used so-called "red clauses" in the their advertising contracts with newspapers and magazines. These muzzle clauses voided the contract
if a state law regulating nostrums were passed. Thus, not only were many editorials silent on the need for such laws, they actively campaigned against
But a few muckraking journalists helped expose the red clauses, the false testimonials, the products laden with harmful ingredients, and the unfounded
health claims. The most influential work was a series written by Samuel Hopkins Adams that appeared in Collier's on October 7, 1905, entitled "The Great
American Fraud." Adams published ten articles in the series, which concluded in February 1906; he followed it up with another series on doctors who
advertised fake clinics.
Socialist writer Upton Sinclair published The Jungle, a fact-based novel about immigrant life in the meat-packing industry of Chicago. Sinclair's shocking
story, verified by government undercover investigators, primed the final push for a federal law. Finally, with strong support from President Theodore
Roosevelt, a Pure Food and Drug Act was passed by Congress in 1906, paving the way for public health action against unlabeled or unsafe ingredients,
misleading advertising, and the practice of quackery.
Cocaine-Laced Toothache Remedy Ad Targeted for Children-1885
Mariani Wine (1875) was the most famous coca wine of it's time. Pope Leo XIII always carried a bottle with him all the time. He awarded Angelo
Mariani, the producer, with a Vatican gold medal. Maltine Coca Wine was produced by the Maltine Manufacturing Company of New York. It was
suggested that you should take a full glass with or after every meal. Children should take half a glass. Metcalf's Coca Wine was another popular
cocaine-laced wine. Click to enlarge images.
Opium medicine for asthma.
Left: Cocaine tablets (1900) were promoted to stage actors, singers, teachers, and preachers for a "smooth" voice.
Right: Opium for newborns in a solution of 46% alcohol.
Left: A paper weight promoting C.F. Boehringer & Soehne (Mannheim, Germany). They were proud of being the biggest producers
in the world of products containing Quinine and Cocaine.
Right: A bottle of Bayer's Heroin. Between 1890 and 1910 heroin was sold as a non-addictive substitute for morphine. It was also
used to treat children with a strong cough.
This article was adapted from:
1) "The Patent Medicine Menace", http://www.fda.gov/Cder/about/history/Gallery/galleryintro.htm, accessed May 23, 2009
2) "History of Patent Medicine", http://www.hagley.org/library/exhibits/patentmed/history/history.html, accessed May 23, 2009
ColorantsHistory.Org thanks B. Prihoda and H. Klein for the ad images.
Copyright © 2009 by ColorantsHistory.Org. All Rights Reserved.
A series of articles by Samuel Hopkins Adams, published in
Collier's 1905-1906, exposed the patent medicine fraud and
led to the Pure Food and Drug Act. Image: www.fda.gov