Lotions and Potions in the Papers

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.

The Age, Melbourne, Australia: April 21, 1897

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.

The Morning Union: February 21, 1900

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.

Quad-City Times: March 21, 1906

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™.

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16 thoughts on “Lotions and Potions in the Papers

  1. My mom had a bottle of paregoric under the sink that she rubbed on my gums when I was teething. When my first baby was born, (1982), I asked my pediatrician if I could have a prescription and I thought he was going to choke! Appartently it was no longer to give kids opium!

    1. I remember when you could buy paregoric over the counter. Then the pharmacists asked you to sign for it. I used it for diarrhea. Sure stopped that problem! :0)

      1. Paregoric was given to me as a child for belly ache and diarrhea. It stopped the belly ache in a few seconds. Doctors didn’t help me much at all. They tried most everything. I have gone through life with this problem (IBS) but got “some better” in my teens through about 45. It got worse then. Now I’m 72 years old and still have IBS. My life with IBS has been a mess. Wish I could use paregoric or something. It’s hard for me to go places. I must know where the restroom is as my first thought. People don’t really understand what I go through. It’s on my mind from the time I get up until I go to bed. It controls me.

        1. That is a shame Steve. Sorry to hear that; I have the opposite problem! I think either problem may be an inherited condition though, so we can blame our ancestors.

        2. Homeopathic medicine will really cure it. Find a homeopath at National Center for Homeopathy

        3. I know someone else who had this problem, and it turns out it was because they were taking magnesium daily, along with the rest of their vitamins.

        4. I had a problem quite similar to you, always had to know where the rest room is or if I had to go on an out of town trip I would skip a whole day of meals in order make a trip so that I would not have problems looking for a rest room in between cities. What I did about ten years ago, I started to take probiotic capsules , I would buy the largest does of probiotic capsules and it took about 3 days for me to notice the difference of my stools, my stools are now normal 99% of the time, which is a great relief!!. I do not eat yogurt since it has milk in it, I am lactose intolerant unfortunately. I do not eat hardly any sweets or drink any soda pops since sugary sweeteners with dextrose or sugar or fructose is bad for the intestines, it is an irritant to the intestines. I am almost 66 years old. I hope this helps you in some way.

    2. yes, it was used in my childhood also. Along with powdered sulphur. My dad would make a paper funnel and blow it into my ears when I got an earache.

      1. It’s still available by prescription, and a variation was OTC until the 90s. When our first child was colicky in 2006(in California) I had a Texas co-worker offer to have his wife pick some up in Mexico for us. I politely declined!

  2. When I was a kid, I got bronchitis a lot. My mom would stop at the drugstore and pick up my Rx of terpin hydrate with codeine. Once I was with her and I remember the pharmacist really chewed her out. He said are you giving this to your little girl? Do you realize how much alcohol is in it? She said yes I do and it’s the best expectorant on the market. Once it was no longer available, I had to be hospitalized with each outbreak of illness. I just found out compounding pharmacies might still make it.

    1. The military called it GI Gin. I worked for the Army and any time we got sick with *something*, the SGM from the hospital would come over and give us a bottle of the stuff (like 1963). :0)

      1. I used it to celebrate my 18th birthday in Navy boot camp San Diego, 1960. I spent several days in sickbay afterward.

    2. I used to get teropin hydrate prescribed when I was in the Air Force. BEST COUGH MEDICINE EVER!!!

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