Archive for the ‘patent medicines’ Category

Late 18th century/early 19th century patent medicines, particularly the old English remedies, owed their popularity to the following fact.  The multitude of ingredients inside might have varied (unbeknownst to the customer), but the bottle shape did not.  A patent medicine’s proprietor believed this distinctiveness leant genuineness to their remedy. 

Victorian trade card, bottle of Ayers Cherry Pectoral

Victorian trade card, bottle of Ayers Cherry Pectoral

Distinctive packaging may have made patent medicines easily recognizable to even the most illiterate, but it also made them vulnerable to counterfeiters.  Naïve proprietors eventually got smart and began to vary their packaging using differing bottle heights, mouth widths, and bottle inscriptions in order to deter counterfeiters.  This may also explain why many of today’s products, not just over the counter medicines, change their packaging from time to time.  Why chance loosing sales to an unscrupulous competitor?

Victorian Trade Card Ayers Ague Cure

close up of bottle on back of Victorian trade card advertising Ayers Ague Cure (notice the similarity in bottle shapes)

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Patent Medicine trade card for Hood's Sarsaparilla made by C.I. Hood & Co. of Lowell, MA

I always read what a medicine claims to “cure” before buying, to ensure I get just what I need and not more.  I’m not interested in overmedicating.  People living during the late 1800s might’ve had a difficult time following my lead.  Read below to see what I mean.

Hood’s Sarsaparilla contains the following ingredients:

Sarsaparilla (or Grandular): perennial trailing vine with prickly stems native to Central America.  It is also known as a type of soda.

Yellow Dock: perennial flowering herb used for blood and liver problems, dermatitus, and venereal diseases.  It’s powdered yellow roots were thought to’ve medicinal properties, and used as a mouthwash and dentifrice.

Wild Cherry: traditional Native American remedy for respiratory infections and anxiety.  It’s primary use over time has evolved into a component of cough syrup.

Dandelion: nutritious food whose leaves contain substantial levels of several vitamins and minerals.  The root’s historical use includes the treatment of breast diseases, water retention, digestive problems, joint pain, fever, and skin diseases.

Juniper: Its berries were used to assist in childbirth, treat congestive heart failure, stimulate menstruation (what??), treat gonorrhea (wait, didn’t yellow dock already do that?), and urinary tract infections.

Pipsissewa (or Prince’s Pine): a rare, small evergreen plant growing 3-10 inches tall sometimes used to flavor candy and root beer.  It’s leaves and stems act as a diuretic, astringent, and tonic alterative.  It is great with cardiac and kidney diseases, chronic rheumatism and scrofula.  **MN is one place it’s found.

Stillingia: a strong stimulant to immune cells.

Mandrake: plant often used for medicinal purposes as an anesthesia. If too much is taken, it can cause people to be delirious and have hallucinations.

So, basically Hood’s Sarsaparilla is a flavored, medicinal soda used to treat anything under the sun.  Geez, it even sounds like it could CAUSE medical problems; especially if mandrake’s included.  So much for not overmedicating.

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Dr. Thomas’ Eclectric Oil was a liniment formulated by Dr. S.N. Thomas in the late 1840s.  Per Joe Nickel, a snake oil expert, it contained: spirits of turpentine, camphor, oil of tar, red thyme, and fish oil specially processed.  Dr. Thomas’ Eclectric Oil claimed to cure ailments such as toothache in 5 minutes, backache in 2 hours, deafness (?) in 2 days, and coughs in 20 minutes.

Dr. Thomas' Eclectric Oil Trade Card

What Are Liniments?

Liniments are strong smelling, watery substances rubbed onto, not into, the skin to relieve sore and stiff muscles.  Rubbing them on too vigorously has been known to cause blisters, since they contain skin irritants.  Why would people be willing to put irritants on their skin?  Think about it.  Turpentine?  Oil of Tar?  Ben Gay is a liniment that contains many of the same ingredients as Dr. Thomas’ Eclectric Oil.  I use it when I can’t stand a back ache anymore.  It is my belief that pain has an amazing ability to get people to try cures they might not otherwise try if they knew what these so called “cures” were made of.

Road to Success

Dr. Thomas homemade Eclectric Oil was a smashing success. In the 1880s, he sold the name and formula to Excelsior Botanical Company.  Dr. Thomas’ Eclectric Oil then appeared in the Farmer’s Almanac as Excelsior Eclectric Oil.  When Foster, Milburn & Co., of Buffalo acquired Excelsior Eclectric Oil a few years later, it was again marketed as Dr. S.N. Thomas’ Eclectic Oil.  It became successful in both domestic and international markets.

Canadian Law Doesn’t Stop Dr. Thomas’ Eclectric Oil

Northrop & Lyman, a Canadian pharmaceutical firm established in 1854, licensed the rights in Canada from Foster, Milburn & Co.  They sold literally millions of bottles of Eclectric Oil until the 1908 Proprietary or Patent Medicine Act was passed in Canada. This law didn’t stop the sale of Eclectric Oil as it did so many other patent medicines.  Nope.  This liniment was sold right up until the end of World War II.

You can find more great Victorian trade cards at Remember When Vintage Postcards.

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Every once in a while, I find myself puzzled about the things people during the late 1800’s believed in.  In this case, the curative properties of Burdock’s Blood Bitters (or BBB) advertised on this Victorian trade card.  Burdock Blood Bitters was a patent medicine made by T. Milburn & Co. of  Toronto until just prior to the repeal of prohibition.    


Burdock Blood Bitters Victorian trade card

Burdock Blood Bitters   

What are blood bitters?  It is a liquid used in the making of alcohol cocktails.  Hmmm.  No mention of a medicinal ingredient.  This is surprising since blood bitters were often marketed as a cure for female “miseries”.  What is not surprising is the mention of alcohol (a prime ingredient in many patent medicines of the late 1800’s).  

What is burdock?  It is the sticky weed balls that get stuck to pets.  Turns out burdock roots have been a favorite medicinal herb for centuries.  For example, they were used in remedies for constipation, hair loss, and as a blood purifying agent.  Burdock roots are still being sold as an ingredient in acne medicine.  

As an added note, BBB contained nearly 20% alcohol.  It seems like this “medicine” was a great way to hide alcohol consumption during the temperance movement and prohibition.  It is more likely people bought this medicine for the alcohol, than for its so-called curative properties. 


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This afternoon, I opened my browser (to prepare a post on Victorian trade cards) to find the Yahoo headline:  Snow in 49 states at one time.  Cool (no pun intended).  The lone hold-out was Hawaii, which coincidentally has a ski club (huh?).  Snow in this many states is so strange, that stats are not kept on it.  Trust the USA to be strange, lol.

In honor of this strange happening, I’ve posted several Victorian trade cards where snow is a prominent part of the image:

JP Coats Victorian Trade Card

JP Coats Victorian Trade Card, Ducks on Ice

Baking Powder Trade Card

Star Crystal Baking Powder Victorian Trade Card

Patent Medicine Trade Card
Lydia Pinkhams Patent Medicine Trade Card for EH McAllister, Druggist


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Kissing seems to be on many people’s minds these days.  Not surprising as Valentine’s Day is just around the corner.  

Victorian trade card lithographers did not appear to have kissing on their minds, however.  I have a stock of over 500 Victorian trade cards and only came up with three examples that showed kissing; two are below.  In the second example, the little girl is giving a kiss of comfort to her doll.  The lack of kissing on Victorian trade cards probably stemmed from the purpose behind them – the advertisement of something objective.  Kissing is anything but objective.  

Victorian trade cards advertising for John B. Merz's French Bakery in Philadelphia, PA.

Patent medicine Victorian trade card advertising Radway's Ready Relief, Donaldson Bros. Lithographer.

 Useless Bits of Kissing Info:  

  • 34 facial muscles and 112 postural muscles are used in a kiss.
  • An increased frequency of kissing in marital and cohabitating relationships has been shown to reduce cholesterol.  Somehow I don’t think that was the goal of the kissing participants.

Many more examples of Victorian trade cards with great graphics can be found in my store, Remember When Vintage Postcards.  

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Sigh. I'm feeling a little old. You see, it's my 50th birthday today.

Considering everything that's happened to me in the past 50 years (go ahead & ask), I guess I should celebrate making it this far, but .....


I've decided to run away to a luxury resort and spa in Lake Geneva, WI instead. That way my daughter can't tease me about being an "old fart".

Once there, I will catch up on my sleep while covered in Egyptian cotton sheets .....

Wear those new togs I bought at Goodwill when dining in a 5-star Italian restaurant (I hope the male waiters are cute) .....

Make use of my bifocals by reading "Lost Symbol" by Dan Brown. It's a BIG book.....

And float down an indoor lazy river on an inner tube in the middle of winter. Ahhhh. What fun to have no responsibilities.

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