The Rise And Fall Of Patent Medicines: How A Women’s Magazine Helped Stop Harmful Quack Cures

The 19th century was the era of P.T. Barnum, when “the suckers” lined up to see the Bearded Lady and the “genuine” Native American and African “savages.” These exhibits may have been more than half chicanery, but at least they didn’t kill anyone.

Patent medicine was different type of charlatanism: It harmed and addicted myriad users until the passage of the first Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. The Ladies’ Home Journal had a great deal to do with the outcry against and the abolishment of early over-the-counter medicines that were usually useless and occasionally deadly.

The Birth and Growth of Patent Medicines

Home cures for various ailments had always existed, but it was not until after the U.S. Civil War that they became big business. At the time, doctors were not particularly trusted, sometimes for good reason: As late as the 1870s, Harvard Medical School gave no written exams, since few of its graduates could write very well. Moreover, the war veterans suffered from many illnesses, both physical and combat-stress related; but often had little money to pay a physician.

Along with the ignorance and misery came a boom in so-called patent medicines; a misnomer if there ever was one, since few of the preparations were patented and most had little medicinal value. Their ads were designed to draw in the gullible. Hypochondriacs could always be persuaded to buy; if they did not have a real disease, the ad agencies simply made one up for them. Creeping Numbness, Sparks Before the Eyes, and Dragging Sensation in the Groin all merited their own special and specially priced nostrum.

19th Century Over-the-Counter Addictive Drugs and Poisons

Many of the quack cures contained morphine, cocaine, and high levels of cheap alcohol, sometimes adulterated with deadly wood alcohol. Babies’ soothing syrups were loaded with laudanum (morphine dissolved in alcohol) and cocaine was included in cold medications. Stomach medicines contained mostly rum or grain alcohol; presumably by the time the consumer sobered up, his stomach pain was gone.

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State legislatures and newspaper owners were paid off by the drug companies. Many prestigious ad agencies owned shares of stock in such companies and happily cranked out enticing copy for Painsfoe, Swamp Root, Golden Medical Discovery, and Mandrake Pills.

The Ladies’ Home Journal Exposes Fraudulent Medicines

In 1892, the Journal’s editor, Edward Bok, and owner Cyrus Curtis, decided not to accept any more ads for patent medications. The magazine’s revenue dropped by $300,000.00 per year. In 1896, the New York Times followed the Journal’s example anyway.

Next, the Journal printed detailed chemical analyses of many popular compounds, revealing their useless or detrimental ingredients. Sales of patent medicines began to decline, and Collier’s magazine printed a series on the bribes and kickback schemes that kept lawmakers and physicians silent about the travesty.

The Pure Food and Drug Act

In 1905, the American Medical Association finally lobbied Congress to pass a law controlling the sale of mail order and over-the-counter medicines. Dr. H.W. Wiley crusaded for state regulation of drugs. In 1906, the government took action, resulting in the first Pure Food and Drug Act.

The Act banned misrepresentations in medical advertising and mandated that narcotics and alcohol had to be clearly specified by name and amount included in the product on the label.

The results were not perfect, but the law led to several convictions; and the poison purveyors began to understand that the government was serious about prosecuting them. The charlatans and quacks, many of whom had become multi millionaires, quietly faded away; taking their syrups, bitters, and Anti Dipso one-hundred-percent-guaranteed cures for alcoholics with them.