Sunday, April 14, 2019

Famous American quacks

“Potions or Poisons?” is an interesting documentary about so-called patent medicines in the United States. I´m sure you can still buy some of these at your local drug store! InfoWars featuring Alex Jones is another sure source of these trinkets. The “patent” medicines were in reality anything but patented. Today, most or all would be considered quack remedies or “snake oil”. The heydays of patent medicines were the 19th and early 20th centuries, when medical bills were exorbitant and officially approved cures might just as well kill you. So why not try patent medicines instead? Many of them did “work”, after a fashion, since they contained large doses of cocaine, opium or alcohol. Coca Cola or Coke began as a patent medicine and contained extract from coca leaves long after it had became a soda. Some potions contained so much alcohol that they were actually sold and served in saloons!

An entire subculture grew up around the quacks and their remedies, including the popular “medicine show”, a kind of circus which toured the rural countryside, providing both entertainment and sales pitches for selected panaceas. Often, American Indians were hired for these shows, pretending to be medicine men and pitching various products dressed in colorful costumes (hopefully from the right tribe!). Since thousands of patent medicines competed for a share of the market, the advertising campaigns were often more important than the actual contents in the bottle. The names and logos sure were patented… 

As late as the 1950´s, a patented medicine called Hadacole was heavily promoted in the South by a Louisiana State senator, using all the tested and tried ingredients: alcohol in the actual bottle, road shows, celebrity support, and stern opposition from the proper authorities. By and large, however, the golden age of snake oil remedies came to an end already before World War II, when the medical professions became better at curing illnesses, while the public (mobilized by muck-raking reporters) railed against dangerous fake drugs and even more filthy food. The urbanization of America made the rural “medicine show” look old fashioned and obsolete.

One of the more intriguing patent medicines was Lydia E Pinkham´s Vegetable Compound, invented and marketed by Lydia Pinkham (1819-1883), a abolitionist, feminist and former Quaker whose family were neighbors of Frederick Douglass. Pinkham´s Vegetable Compound was specifically marketed for women to relieve menstrual problems, and Pinkham would also respond in person to every woman who wrote letters asking for private advice. The compound, being a mixture of herbs and alcohol, probably worked as well as anything available at the time. A modified version of the potion is still on sale today. I think the alcohol is gone!

As the documentary points out, while the classical era of not-so-patented placebo drinks is gone, a lot of other alternative medicines have replaced them, so in that sense, snake oil never went away…

OK, I have to take some vitamin C against my fever…

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