Before the word pharmaceutical, before Merck and Viagra, before the Food and Drug Administration, there were always people selling The Cure for What Ails You.
Taylor's Oil of Life! Your English Female Bitters (for maid or matron)! Dr. Shoop's Tonic! And of course Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription!
All of these elixirs sit preserved in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History patent medicine collection, which chronicles the rise and fall of the over-the-counter's precursor from its early British roots through the rise of modern medicine in the early 20th century.
Patent medicine was the name given to the various concoctions mixed up by post-apothecary, pre-chemist mixologists who sometimes pretended to be doctors. Many included booze, lots of booze. One doctor made the statistical claim that "more alcohol is consumed in this country in patent medicines than is dispensed in a legal way by licensed liquor vendors," beers excepted. Others had morphine, opium, cocaine, heroin, cannabis, or even actanilide, a precursor of acetaminophen. All contained strange combinations of natural ingredients that managed to impart a distinctive smell and taste and brand to each potion. Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription, for example, contained lady's slipper root, black cohosh root, unicorn root, blue cohosh root, oregon grape root, and viburnum.
Recently, Diane Wendt, Associate Curator in the Division of Medicine and Science, gave us a behind-the-scenes tour of the collection. Three themes emerged during our conversations that make the collection so fascinating and important.
First, patent medicines are a testament to the long and friendly relationship between marketing and medicine in the United States. Early tonic makers were pioneers in outdoor advertising, traveling sales, and what we would call advertorial now. They were experts at working the newspapers to legitimize themselves, as revealed by Samuel Hopkins Adams in his massive expose for Collier's Magazine, "The great American fraud." They were some of the first brands to extend beyond we would know now as brand building.
Second, they speak to this deep American desire for the cure-all in a bottle. The substances have certainly changed -- some of the new ones even work! -- but the consumer desire to be made whole and healthy through simply buying something hasn't. These bottles represent the echinacea, creatine, acai, or fen-phen of their day. Some were harmless, others not so much, but all made it seem as if a better life was just a pill (or swig) away.
Third, they are just beautiful. Imagine if the cold and flu aisle of the CVS looked like these bottles. They seem to mark a high water mark in typography and offset printing. They've aged incredibly well, too.
Eventually, regular medicine got better and the the Food and Drug Administration's regulations got tougher and scathing exposes like Adams' depressed the popularity of patent medicines. By then, though, the American consumer had already been exposed and it was just a matter of time before a nearly endless supply of new health miracles appeared to worm their money out of their wallets.
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