Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Quack! Quack! Patent Medicines in Early Grinnell

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?)

As Grinnell's W. B. Tew (1869-1946), who sold meat at 826 Main Street, pointed out in a 1903 newspaper advertisement, "There's nothing like a rich, juicy and tender beef steak. It warms the cockles of your heart; you never tire of it...." Indeed, the ad urged consumers to enjoy red meat for breakfast as well as for dinner (Grinnell Herald, March 20, 1903). Evidently lots of Iowans agreed with Tew's enthusiasm. By today's standards, early Iowans consumed way too much meat. According to a 1909 survey of urban Americans, the poorest Americans consumed 136 pounds of meat a year, and the richest more than 200 pounds, the great bulk of it red meat. 

The meat-heavy diet of the early twentieth century likely led to considerable abdominal discomfort among Grinnell's finest families. Red meat has no fiber, and if a person eats a lot of meat, the quantity of fiber-rich fruits and vegetables inevitably declines. The result? Constipation. Ambitious marketers rushed in with proposed remedies (none of which involved eating less meat). Indeed, some historians have characterized the early twentieth century in America as the "Golden Age of Purgation" when patent-medicine makers concentrated advertisements upon the ability of their products to relieve constipation, "biliousness," and sluggish bowels. Grinnell's newspapers regularly printed advertisements for products said to offer relief.

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/)

Charles Ira Hood (1845-1922), like DeWitt and Pierce, produced an assortment of medicines that promised to cure everything from ingrown toenails to jaundice and eczema. By 1900 Hood was operating from a facility said to have been "the largest building in the world dedicated to the manufacture and sale of patent medicines." He had begun as a pharmacy apprentice, and by age 25 had opened his own drug store in Lowell, Massachusetts, and begun the preparation of Hood's Sarsaparilla, a purgative which included bits of several plants and a whole lot of alcohol (18%). He soon branched out into other products—tooth powder, soap, lotion, and cough syrup. When his wife sold the business soon after Hood's 1922 death, the widow collected $450,000—something more than $7 million in today's dollars.

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).

1922 US Passport Photograph of L. T. Cooper
Ancestry.com (U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925)

Tanlac literature did not reveal the secret contents, but advertising regularly claimed exotic origins for its constituent elements: "The Alps, Appenines, Pyrenees, Russian-Asia, Brazil, West Indies, Rocky Mountains, Asia Minor, Persia, India, Mexico, Columbia and Peru are among the far away points from which the principal properties of this remarkable preparation are obtained" (Grinnell Herald, June 21, 1921).

Chemical analysis discovered, however, that the main ingredient was alcohol—about seventeen percent; glycerine and various alkaloids were also present in smaller quantities (The Health Bulletin of North Carolina, vol. 31[1916-17],  p. 69). The several natural purgatives made Tanlac useful against constipation, and the alcohol may well have stimulated the appetite. But there is no reason to think that Tanlac, despite all the wild claims of its printed testimonials, relieved the numerous ailments advertising alleged to remedy (ibid., p. 70).

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

Swansons Rheumatic Cure (also known as Swanson's 5-Drops), for instance, promised relief not only from rheumatism, but also from "bronchitis, lumbago, sciatica, gout, asthma, catarrh, nervousness, backache, dyspepsia, indigestion, croup, nervous and neuralgia headache, heart weakness, paralysis, creeping numbness, sleeplessness, eczema, scrofula and all blood diseases" (Grinnell Herald, December 30, 1904). 
Bottle of Swanson's Five Drops

Dr. Fenner's Kidney and Backache Cure was more modest in its claims, but no less insistent upon its effectiveness (Grinnell Herald, December 23, 1904). Milton Fenner (1837-1905) did earn an MD in "eclectic medicine," which he used to manufacture a variety of compounds of his own design. Dr. J. M. McLean's Liver and Kidney Balm, "a reliable remedy for diseases of the liver, kidneys and urinary organs," cost only one dollar (Grinnell Herald, February 17, 1903). Grinnellians worried about their hair or its disappearance could acquire Ayer's Hair Vigor, which "makes the hair grow, completely cures dandruff. And it always restores color to gray hair, all the rich, dark color of early life" (Grinnell Herald, January 24, 1905).

Bottle for Ayer's Hair Vigor
(National Museum of American History: https://americanhistory.si.edu/collections/search/object/nmah_715094)

Even in Grinnell, there were numerous other mixtures available which did not purchase space for advertisements in the newspaper. The Grinnell Historical Museum, for example, owns a bottle for what was known as Adlerika, invented in 1902, ostensibly as a cure for appendicitis. Fritola compound, a bottle from which may also be found in the Museum collection, was another patent medicine marketed as a laxative. Depending primarily upon several oils—olive, peanut, corn and palm—Fritola compound quite literally greased the intestines. No doubt there were many more patent medicines available at the five drug stores operating in early Grinnell.
Photo of Johnson and Wadsworth Drug Store, 827 Broad (ca. 1880s)

Reading the expansive claims made for these concoctions tempts one to ridicule the men and women who swallowed not only the bottle contents but also the claims that advertising for them advanced. However, if we consider for a moment contemporary off-label uses for products like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, our ancestors look a lot more like us than we might wish. Moreover, as today's bulging over-the-counter medicine racks prove, plenty of twenty-first-century Americans continue to self-prescribe remedies for their illnesses and pains.

What certainly distinguishes our world from that of early twentieth-century Grinnell, however, is the consequence of government intervention. The unregulated industry of patent medicines was dangerous and intentionally deceptive, the entrepreneurs' goal of great wealth playing a more important role than concern for the public health. Only after government stepped in, first in the form of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and then later with additional legislation, did manufacturers moderate their claims of effectiveness and alert purchasers to the contents of the packages that they purchased. Of course, fakery did not disappear, but government initiative made the early twentieth-century patent medicine market more truthful and helped weed out the worst offenders against public health.

PS. Thanks to Gene Wubbels for suggesting the 1899 Merck Manual to me.

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