There is no shortage of snake
oil in America.
Whether sold by politicians
as endless campaign promises, or by
spammers tempting us with virility enhancers and other elixirs of life, we are
all too familiar with snake oil and its salesmen.
What America needs is a good, honest balm. And I have
just the thing -- a little something for most anything that ails you -- in our patent
medicine collection at the National Museum of American History. Currently we
have over 600 remedies available (for browsing only) on our website "Balm of America: Patent Medicine Collection." Here
you will find humor (probably unintentional), snake oil salesmanship, and quackery,
but also "regular medicine": common remedies used to alleviate symptoms and
I have spent a lot of time digging up bits and pieces of the stories
behind these products and the people who made them. It can be fun and frustrating;
while some products are well known, others have come and gone, leaving few
traces. Here are some facts and speculation about two such products:
BALM OF AMERICA
Balm of America was a cough and cold remedy offered by
the Boston apothecary, Thomas Hollis, in the mid-19th century. The name, suggesting
a cure for all the ills of our nation, seemed a perfect fit for our site's
Balm of America broadside, mid-19th century. Note the disclaimer at the bottom.
To add to the product's allure, the name also suggests that most-famous-of-all-balms,
the "Balm of Gilead," a substance highly valued for its medicinal value since
antiquity. ("Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no
physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people
recovered?" --Jeremiah 8:22)
Was Hollis selling snake-oil? His establishment in Boston was one of
the oldest (est. 1821) and most widely respected, and his other proprietary mixtures
generally had rather simple, prosaic names: Hollis's Lozenges, Pectoral Syrup,
Horse Liniment, Syrup of Sarsaparilla, etc.
Hollis Store, c. 1923. The dark blob of shadow at the top is from his large mortar and pestle sign.
Then I came across this: Populus candicans is called Balm of Gilead in America. The buds of this common
tree, also known as balsam poplar, exude a resin that is used medicinally, especially
for coughs and pulmonary complaints.
Perhaps Hollis' cough cure referred simply to this native species,
the "Balm of Gilead" in America. Many local folk remedies found their way into
mainstream medicine and became widely distributed. Maybe this was Hollis' "Valuable
Discovery." In Appalachian folk medicine, Balm of Gilead Buds were known as "Bam
Gilly Buds," and they are widely available today in many herbal
Of course this is pure speculation on my part. No government regulation
existed to require Hollis to reveal the ingredients in his preparations, so his
formula remains a mystery.
Side of box for White Eagle's Indian Oil Liniment, noting the product's original name.
I found the liniment listed in the American Medical Association's 1921 Nostrums
and Quackery section on
"Misbranded Drugs and Foods: Convictions Under the Food and Drugs Act." Government chemists found no rattlesnake
oil in the liniment (mostly kerosene), and the claim that it would cure
diphtheria, hay-fever, goiter, deafness, and rheumatism was declared false and
fraudulent. The proprietors of the White Eagle Medicine Company of Piqua, Ohio, were Aaron P. and Caroline McCarty. They changed the name and label on their
product, paid the fine of $25 each, and were back in business.
Bottle of snake oil, "The Old Indian Remedy."
"Chief White Eagle," A.P. McCarty, from the product's box.
I was able to learn more about Aaron P. McCarty through his famous
son, heavyweight champion of 1913, Luther McCarty. Luther died tragically in the ring,
on May 24, 1913, killed by a blow from opponent Arthur Pelkey. News articles
following the death revealed more about the father: A. [Aaron or Anton] P.
McCarty traveled about the country under the name of Chief White Eagle selling
his rattlesnake oil. Although he was widely believed to have Indian blood, he
admitted that he was of Scotch-Irish descent.
Worthy balms or worthless nostrums? Honest apothecaries or snake oil
salesmen? Take a look at our collection and let us know what you know about these
products and their proprietors.
This post also appears on the Smithsonian's O Say Can You See? blog, an Atlantic partner site.