Patent medicines and advertising
Mugwump, an invented name
The phrase "patent medicine" comes from the late 17th century marketing of medical elixirs, when those who found favour with royalty were issued letters patent authorising the use of the royal endorsement in advertising. Few if any of the nostrums were actually patented; chemical patents did not come into use in the United States until 1925. Furthermore, patenting one of these remedies would have meant publicly disclosing its ingredients, which most promoters sought to avoid.
Advertisement kept these patent medications in the public eye and gave the belief that no disease was beyond the cure of patent medication. “The medicine man’s key task quickly became not production but sales, the job of persuading ailing citizens to buy his particular brand from among the hundreds offered. Whether unscrupulous or self-deluded, nostrum makers set about this task with cleverness and zeal.”
Instead, the compounders of such nostrums used a primitive version of branding to distinguish their products from the crowd of their competitors. Many extant brands from the era live on today in brands such as Luden's cough drops, Lydia E. Pinkham's vegetable compound for women, Fletcher's Castoria and even Angostura bitters, which was once marketed as a stomachic. Though sold at high prices, many of these products were made from cheap ingredients. Their composition was well known within the pharmacy trade, and druggists manufactured and sold (for a slightly lower price) medicines of almost identical composition. To protect profits, the branded medicine advertisements emphasized brand names, and urged the public to "accept no substitutes".
At least in the earliest days, the history of patent medicines is coextensive with scientific medicine. Empirical medicine, and the beginning of the application of the scientific method to medicine, began to yield a few orthodoxly acceptable herbal and mineral drugs for the physician's arsenal. These few remedies, on the other hand, were inadequate to cover the bewildering variety of diseases and symptoms. Beyond these patches of evidence-based application, people used other methods, such as occultism; the "doctrine of signatures" – essentially, the application of sympathetic magic to pharmacology – held that nature had hidden clues to medically effective drugs in their resemblances to the human body and its parts. This led medical men to hope, at least, that, say, walnut shells might be good for skull fractures. Homeopathy, the notion that illness is binary and can be treated by ingredients that cause the same symptoms in healthy people, was another outgrowth of this early era of medicine. Given the state of the pharmacopoeia, and patients' demands for something to take, physicians began making "blunderbuss" concoctions of various drugs, proven and unproven. These concoctions were the ancestors of the several nostrums.
Touting these nostrums was one of the first major projects of the advertising industry. The marketing of nostrums under implausible claims has a long history. In Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749), allusion is made to the sale of medical compounds claimed to be universal panaceas:
- As to Squire Western, he was seldom out of the sick-room, unless when he was engaged either in the field or over his bottle. Nay, he would sometimes retire hither to take his beer, and it was not without difficulty that he was prevented from forcing Jones to take his beer too: for no quack ever held his nostrum to be a more general panacea than he did this; which, he said, had more virtue in it than was in all the physic in an apothecary's shop.
1914 advertisement implying approval by the U.S. government
Within the English-speaking world, patent medicines are as old as journalism. "Anderson's Pills" were first made in England in the 1630s; the recipe was allegedly learned in Venice by a Scot who claimed to be physician to King Charles I. Daffy's Elixir was invented about 1647 and remained popular in Britain and the USA until the late 19th century. The use of "letters patent" to obtain exclusive marketing rights to certain labelled formulas and their marketing fueled the circulation of early newspapers. The use of invented names began early. In 1726 a patent was also granted to the makers of "Dr. Bateman's Pectoral Drops"; at least on the documents that survive, there was no Dr. Bateman. This was the enterprise of a
Benjamin Okell and a group of promoters who owned a warehouse and a print shop to promote the product.
A number of American institutions owe their existence to the patent medicine industry, most notably a number of the older almanacs, which were originally given away as promotional items by patent medicine manufacturers. Perhaps the most successful industry that grew up out of the business of patent medicine advertisements, though, was founded by
William H. Gannett in Maine in 1866. There were few circulating newspapers in Maine in that era, so Gannett founded a periodical, Comfort, whose chief purpose was to propose the merits of Oxien, a nostrum made from the fruit of the baobab tree, to the rural folks of Maine. Gannett's newspaper became the first publication of Guy Gannett Communications, which eventually owned four Maine dailies and several television stations. (The family-owned firm is unrelated to the Gannett Corporation that publishes USA Today.) An early pioneer in the use of advertising to promote patent medicine was New York businessman Benjamin Brandreth, whose "Vegetable Universal Pill" eventually became one of the best-selling patent medicines in the United States. “…A congressional committee in 1849 reported that Brandreth was the nation’s largest proprietary advertiser… Between 1862 and 1863 Brandreth’s average annual gross income surpassed $600,000…” For fifty years Brandreth’s name was a household word in the United States Indeed, the Brandreth pills were so well known they received mention in Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick.
Another publicity method – undertaken mostly by smaller firms – was the medicine show, a traveling circus of sorts that offered vaudeville-style entertainments on a small scale, and climaxed in a pitch for some sort of cure-all nostrum. "Muscle man" acts were especially popular on these tours, for this enabled the salesman to tout the physical vigour the product supposedly offered. The showmen frequently employed shills, who stepped forward from the crowd to offer "unsolicited" testimonials about the benefits of the medicine. Often, the nostrum was manufactured and bottled in the wagon in which the show travelled. The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company became one of the largest and most successful medicine show operators. Their shows had an American Indian or Wild West theme, and employed many American Indians as spokespeople such as the Modoc War scout Donald McKay. The "medicine show" lived on in American folklore and Western movies long after they vanished from public life.