The definition of patent medicine is a medical compound or mixture of drugs, sometimes called a “nostrum,” that is proprietary, or protected by a patent, and is available without a doctor’s prescription. In reality, most of the old-time patent medicines were “marked” medicines (usually the container and the label design were trademarked), and the contents were not patented.
Although the term “patent medicine” was first used in the late 17th century in Europe, it became highly popular in the American colonies. Combinations of herbs and chemicals were branded and sold as cures for every ill. Some of the more famous “nostrums” that are still well known today are Lydia E. Pinkham’s vegetable compound, and Angostura bitters. Canterbury Shaker Village was well-known in New Hampshire for it’s medicine herb garden used in the creation of herbal and patent medicines.
Patent medicines often made use of grand claims (to cure every known problem), and also first-hand testimonials, which were often promotional statements rather than the actual words of cured customers.Advertising these patent medicines became big business, and reportedly a number of almanacs and newspapers owe their existence to this form of marketing. Some advertisers took to the road with a “medicine show.”
Although I’m sure some of the patent medicines contained ingredients to help ailments internal and external, some of them were either completely ineffective, or were actually dangerous to one’s health. The makers were not required to list ingredients on the container, nor to provide the information to their customers. Many of the “medicines” included alcohol, and so they were the bane of temperance advocates. Others contained drugs such as opium, cocaine, or acetanilide which caused the user to crave more of the remedy.
The Portsmouth Herald of 30 Dec 1901, on page 4 wrote about what they said was the First Patent Medicine as follows: “The first patent medicine, it is asserted, ever put up for sale in America was a proposed cure for consumption. It was called Tuscarora rice and was compounded and sold by a Mrs. Masters, who erected a large establishment for its manufacture in New Jersey about 1711.”
In 1906 the first Pure Food and Drug Act was passed which required these medicines to be labeled, and helped to stop some of the more outrageous medical claims.
[Created January 27, 2008, links updated October 10, 2014]