Historical newspapers contain thousands of advertisements and testimonials touting miracle cures for sickness, aches, and pains. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that many of these lotions and potions, known as patent medicines, were either wholly ineffective or dangerous and deadly. The patent medicine craze of the 19th century was fueled in part by the proliferation of daily newspapers. For the first time, products were advertised to the masses in an affordable way. Here are a few examples of patent medicines.
Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was a popular treatment for fussy babies. Advertisements promised that it would cure baby colic. The syrup was also widely used for teething. The syrup’s effectiveness came from two primary ingredients – morphine and alcohol. Sadly, hundreds of infant deaths were attributed to the medicine.
If you wanted to cure chorea (called St. Vitus’ dance back then), anemia, depression, or a host of other conditions, Dr. Williams’s Pink Pills for Pale People was a popular medicine. A modern analysis revealed that the pills contained iron oxide and Epsom salts. The pink pills remained on the market until the 1970s.
Relley’s Cocaine Toothache Drops is just what it sounded like – drops containing cocaine. A few drops applied topically acted as an anesthetic, and this caused the popularity of cocaine to explode. It was fast-acting, inexpensive, and often used as a surgical anesthetic.
Today, the term “snake oil” is used in a derogatory sense. But in the 1800s and beyond, snake oil was advertised as a treatment for rheumatism and sore joints. Snake oil arrived in the United States with Chinese railroad workers in the 1800s. It came from an eel common in China that had effective anti-inflammatory properties. Soon, imitations sprung up without the authentic ingredients. One group was marketing Rattle Snake Oil as a cure-all. It was later found to be just olive oil.
Without any regulation, patent medicines were sometimes deadly. The papers are filled with the tragic news of suffering caused by patent medicines. In 1906 Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act to crack down on unlabeled or unsafe ingredients. Following this, the number of patent medicines declined rapidly.
Want to explore some of the advertisements for patent medicines in the 1800s – 1900s? See our Newspapers.com™ Topic Page with patent medicine ads. Many of the old patent medicine bottles are now collectibles, and you can learn more about the original product in our archives. Explore the world of patent medicines today on Newspapers.com™.