Patent Medicine Bottles

Description

Patent medicines in the 19th and 20th Centuries claimed to cure everything from acne to xenophobia and they didn’t taste too bad either.  These “drugs” were sold over the counter throughout the United States and were consumed by just about everyone.  They often contained alcohol and sometimes painkillers like opium and cocaine. 

They didn’t “cure” anything, but often the user usually felt better and even thought he or she was being cured…until they died of an untreated self-diagnosed disease.  Epidemics like Shreveport's yellow fever outbreak were often treated with these "medicines" with disastrous consequences.

These patent medicines were sometimes endorsed by national celebrities, associated with social or political causes, and claimed to contain “secret ingredients” known only to the ancients or mysterious foreign doctors.  They were hawked in travelling shows who often sold common liniments but claimed the bottles contain a mysterious healing “snake oil”.  This turned the term “snake oil salesman” into a symbol of a charlatan.

The end of these “miraculous cures” came in the early 20th Century.  The first blow came with an series of articles published 1905 by the respected and widely read Collier’s Magazine.  The articles exposed what was in the drugs and how they were marketed.  The next attack came with the creation of the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission.  The FDA sought to prevent dangerous drugs from being sold to sufferers, and the FTC deceptive advertising from bilking the unwary.

Some of the patent medicine firms reworked their recipes to comply with new laws and remained it business.  A few can be found on drug store shelves today.

Location in Museum

Yellow Jack! Exhibit case

Age

Late 19th and early 20th Century
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