Most readers will be familiar with the over-the-counter shelves of Walmart and Target. There one can find a vast array of products intended to relieve headaches, fight the pains of arthritis, shorten the duration of colds, remove corns, and much more. Thanks to a series of laws, beginning with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, today's consumers can learn the active ingredients in all these products since the law requires that they be listed on packaging. Moreover, legislation prohibited false claims about cures, and established organizations to examine and supervise the marketing of these products.
Things were different in early Grinnell. With no one to whom to answer, entrepreneurs generated and sold concoctions with no proven effectiveness and not infrequently with large quantities of alcohol or addictive drugs, in the process alleging wildly extravagant claims for their products. Grinnell did not escape this phenomenon; today's post looks at some of the patent medicines offered consumers in early Grinnell and what they tell us about life early in the twentieth century.
|Undated photograph of McNally's Meat Market (1920?)|
|Dr. Pierce's Golden Medical Discovery|
National Museum of American History
One of the entrepreneurs who flooded the market with over-the-counter remedies was Dr. Ray Vaughn Pierce (1840-1914). Unlike most of his competitors, many of whom called themselves "Dr.," despite having no medical training, Pierce actually did graduate from medical school and for a few years practiced medicine in Pennsylvania. After he moved to Buffalo, New York in 1867, however, he concentrated upon the manufacture of patent medicines and proved very successful in this enterprise.
Dr. Pierce's Pleasant Pellets (!), for example, focused upon the liver, which, according to advertisements, "has a great deal to do with the removal of waste from the body," and not just from the blood either. "Dr. Pierce's Pellets regulate the bowels," an early ad claimed (Grinnell Herald, May 23, 1902). Indeed, Pierce's pills, which depended upon jalap resin, and aloin, may well have acted as a laxative, whether or not they helped the liver (Merck Manual [Rahway, NJ: Merck & Co., 1972 (reprinting 1899 ed.)], pp. 93, 188). But the presence of jimsonweed, known as a hallucinogen, complicated the formula for relieving constipation and added unanticipated side-effects.
Pierce's Golden Medical Discovery, often paired with Pierce's Pellets in advertising, was, its maker claimed, "far more than a tonic." Created from a mixture of root extracts (mandrake root; bloodroot; stone root; golden seal root, etc.), glycerine, borate of soda, and a lot of water) "Medical Discovery" was said to cure the liver, which,
When it is sluggish in its action the whole body must suffer by reason of clogging accumulations.... Pierce's Golden Medical Discovery...restores the liver to healthy activity, purifies the blood, and cures diseases of the organs of digestion and nutrition (Grinnell Herald, April 18, 1902).Or so Grinnell purchasers hoped.
|Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription|
National Museum of American History
Lest one think that these medicines aided only men or the elderly, advertising claimed help for the growing girl, "especially...as the young girl approaches that important period of change when the womanly function is established." Testimony alleged to come from a mother in Washington, DC confirmed that Pierce's Favorite Prescription (containing extracts from viburnum and the roots of lady's slipper, black cohosh, blue cohosh, and oregon grape) along with Pierce's Pleasant Pellets had cured a daughter previously "troubled with dizziness and constipation..." (Grinnell Herald, May 23, 1902). An ad published in Grinnell one month earlier used the words of a Virginia woman who believed "Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription to be the best medicine in the world for suffering females" (Grinnell Herald, April 25, 1902).
|Advertisement in Grinnell Herald, April 25, 1902|
Another patent medicine that competed for the attention of Grinnell's bloated, constipated citizens was Kodol, a "dyspepsia cure" manufactured by Chicago's E. C. DeWitt & Co. Like other patent medicine purveyors, Elden C. DeWitt (1855-1927), who was born in Jones County, Iowa, grew rich: at his 1927 death his estate was valued at $20 million (approximately $300 million in today's currency). His money came from another wide array of patent medicines—aimed at kidneys, hemorrhoids, constipation, and "women's personal cleanliness and hygiene."
Like Pierce's products, Kodol was a steady advertiser in newspapers of the early years of the twentieth century. Kodol "Digests what you eat," ads claimed, thereby allowing one "to eat all the food you want." "It can't help but do you good," advertising asserted, although nothing explained why or how the product accomplished its goal. One bottle cost one dollar, providing the purchaser with a considerable quantity of alcohol (about 12%), as well as some pancreatine and pepsin (Grinnell Herald, April 25, 1902). The Merck Manual of 1899 attributed some useful digestive quality to both pancreatin and pepsin (p. 118).
|Kodol box and bottle|
Hood's Vegetable Pills, "the best family cathartic," was yet another competitor for the cash of Grinnell's citizens. Hood's Pills, prepared and sold by C. I. Hood and Company Apothecaries, Lowell, Massachusetts, were cheaper than many remedies, selling for a mere twenty-five cents. Packages of the pills claimed that they "regulate the bowels, invigorate the liver, and cure sick headaches." An ad in the Grinnell newspaper went further, offering relief for "Constipation, Headache, Biliousness, Heartburn, Indigestion, [and] Dizziness" (Grinnell Herald, February 16, 1900). Packaging declared the pills to be "purely vegetable, containing no calomel, mercury, or mineral substance of any kind."
|C. I. Hood Company Laboratory (ca. 1895)|
(J. Paul Getty Museum, https://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/89026/attributed-to-ci-hood-company-hood's-sarsaparilla-laboratory-lowell-mass-about-1895/)
|Hood's Vegetable Pills|
From National Museum of American History (https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_737797)
Another contender in the business of relieving constipation was Cascarets, which was perhaps the most widely-known patent medicine directed toward relieving constipation. Cascarets was the invention of a former Keokuk man—Harry L. Kramer (1861-1935)—who settled in Indiana, where he erected a health resort near Attica. Originally touted for its mineral springs, the resort soon focused upon the mud baths offered there, and so Hotel Mudlavia was born. Numerous celebrities visited the site, anxious to relieve the pains of rheumatism and other ills.
But it was Cascarets that earned Kramer a place in the patent medicine hall of fame. Packaged in a slim metallic case that could easily fit into a vest pocket or purse, Cascarets aimed to heal "cositive [sic] bowels, sour stomach, cold or headache." A half-dozen chocolate-like tablets originally cost ten cents, although later the price rose to a half-dollar. Like its competitors, Cascarets warred against a "torpid liver" and constipated bowels. The product's name hinted at its main ingredient, cascara, extracted from buckthorn bark and long recognized as a purgative. By 1900 Sterling Products, the maker of Cascarets, was selling five million tins a year.
|Photograph of a tin of Cascarets|
(National Museum of American History, https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_718611)
Tanlac appeared less often in Grinnell newspapers than some of its competitors, but was omni-present elsewhere. The invention of a Dayton, Ohio entrepreneur named Lee Thomas Cooper (1875-1927), who had earlier tried to huckster a variety of cures, Tanlac claimed to be a "tonic and system purifier," phrasing that helped it escape regulation by the Pure Food and Drug Act. Depending upon an aggressive advertising campaign that employed unverifiable testimonials, Tanlac helped generate a fortune for Cooper. According to one report, 208,000 bottles were sold in eight months in North Carolina alone (The Health Bulletin of North Carolina, vol. 31[1916-17], p. 68). In 1921 company advertising claimed that more than 20 million bottles had been sold over the preceding six years (Grinnell Herald, June 21, 1921).
|Package of Tanlac (http://www.weirduniverse.net/blog/comments/tanlac)|
Other patent medicines hawked in Grinnell's newspapers addressed problems other than constipation. Scott's Emulsion, for instance, claimed to help "build new flesh." In the mid-1870s Alfred B. Scott (ca. 1846-1908) and Samuel W. Bowne (ca. 1843-1910) created this product as a "less nauseating preparation of cod liver oil." Unlike most other patent medicines, Scott's Emulsion advertised its contents, even before legislation required it: 50% cod liver oil along with calcium, soda, glycerine, and mucilage (possibly gum acacia). By 1900 Scott's Emulsion was being sold throughout the world, and some versions continue to be sold in the US (at Walmart, for example).
|Advertisement in Grinnell Herald, April 25, 1902|
Early ads shouted that Scott's Emulsion "is not a good medicine for fat folks...Fat people don't want it. Strong people don't need it" (Grinnell Herald, April 25, 1902). Depending primarily upon cod liver oil (but flavored to make it more palatable), Scott's Emulsion provided vitamins A and D, whether or not it helped thin people grow stouter.
|American Museum of American History|
Shiloh's Consumption Cure, first offered for sale in the 1870s, was the brain child of Schuyler C. Wells (1840-1897). Like some other patent medicines, Shiloh's Consumption Cure pedaled a "habit-forming drug," in this case, heroin. Early advertisements, however, "guaranteed to cure Consumption, Bronchitis, Asthma, and all Lung Troubles. Cures Coughs and Colds in a day"—all this for twenty-five cents. After passage of the 1906 Food and Drug Act, the S. C. Wells Company changed tack, abandoning some of the most outrageous claims and concentrating instead upon the product's ability to stop coughs. For a time it bore the name Shiloh's Consumption Remedy (and not "cure"); under further pressure from critics, the company resorted to "Shiloh's Cure" (without specifying what it might cure), which remained available until at least 1948.
|Advertisement for Shiloh's Consumption Cure|
Grinnell Herald, April 29, 1902
|Bottle for Ayer's Hair Vigor|
(National Museum of American History: https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_715094)
|Photo of Johnson and Wadsworth Drug Store, 827 Broad (ca. 1880s)|