|Figure 1 -- A home recipe for Daffey's Elixir, 1829 (5)|
The ancient Romans referred to medicines that were sold but not tested as nostrum remedium (6)
During the middle ages these remedies were referred to as "proprietary preparations," and by the 19th century as "patent medicines."
Some of the first inventors of proprietary preparations were alchemists from the middle ages who mixed various chemicals searching for the ultimate remedy. They'd mix in some food coloring to make it look nice and sweetener to make it taste nice. Then they'd pour it in bottles with an attractive label or pamphlet claiming it will prevent or cure some ailment, or (1, page 287, 291)
There was an obvious market for such remedies in Britain and the U.S. The following are some of the theories why botanic medicine became such a craze:
1. The melancholy nature of the nation caused by diseases such as syphilis, leprosy, scurvy, diarrhea, consumption, pneumonia, influenza, asthma, gout, blindness, deafness, skin diseases, mental illness, etc.
2. The high rate of death caused by accidents or one of the above listed diseases, and the fact that more than half of all children died at birth or within the first two years of disease. Infant mortality consisted of two-fifths of all deaths in England. (1, page 311)
3. Medicine was expensive: "Apothecary bills were exceptionally high in the seventeenth century, and the cost of medicine was often exploited by physicians and surgeons as an excuse for running up their charges." (1, page 293)
4. Physician's remedies often made patient feel worse: Due to their theories, many remedies consisted of induced bleeding, vomiting, diarrhea, burning of the skin, etc. Their remedies may have provided a glimmer of hope, but most provided little more.
5. The contents of physician's remedies were less than appealing: Consider that the various pharmacopoeia of the 17th century contained such ingredients as spiders, semen, blood, bugs, birds, animals, etc.
6. Many physicians were seen in a negative fashion: "By the seventeenth century the physicians had become a sterile pedant, and cox comb, red-heeled, long robed, big wigged, square bonneted, pompous and disdainful in manner making a vain parade of his Latin and instead of studying and caring for his patients, tried to overawe them with long tirades of technical drivel, which only concealed his ignorance of what he supposed to be their diseases." (1, page 297)
7. Battle between physicians, surgeons, barbers, grocers and apothecaries (druggists). Druggists often set up as physicians who both made and prescribed remedies. Grocers sold medicine too, although this ended in 1606 by James I. Apothecaries came to a head with physicians about the time of the great plague of 1665 when most physicians (including Sydenham) left their posts, and apothecaries stayed at their posts. (1, page 293)
8. Physician's fees varies by mile and sex: The further the physician had to travel the more he charged. Charges for women were often much higher than for men. (1, page 295)
9. The booming newspaper business: It is believed by many experts that the reason the patent medicine industry boomed during the course of the 19th century was due to the growth of the newspaper industry. In Manistee, Michigan, for example, a small town along the shore of Lake Michigan where the Manistee River joins the lake, there were five newspapers. This was interesting, considering the population of Manistee today is less than 10,000. So the market was obviously booming for such products.
This booming market created a great opportunity for the manufacturers of Patent Medicine to advertise the great healing properties of their remedies. To catch the eye of potential customers, the advertisements often came with testimonials from people who tried the medicine, and doctors who recommended it with good results.
However, as is still true today, the validity of the testimonials was often in question, and whether the claims were true generally fit into the phrase: caviet emptor (buyer beware).
There was also no requirement that claims had to be true, and even if there were, such laws were often ignored. Whether a product had the claimed ingredients, or whether it was made by a doctor, an apothecary, or a simple house wife was usually never known.
Why was the product being advertised in the newspaper. Of course the claim was always that this natural remedy or that would cure this or that disease. But whether the seller was someone who benefited the product and was simply offering a public service, or was someone who was just out to make a profit, was also never known.
Of course, as was the case with most patent medicine, the author could claim anything he wanted. Perhaps the author simply made up the recipe to sell the recipe book. Or, as may sometimes have been the case, the author may have had a perceived benefit from use of the product, and thought he was doing a public service by publishing the recipe.
A perfect example here is a recipe for Daffy's Elixer that was published in newspapers in 1929. The author claimed the recipe was the "genuine recipe." Was it? Your guess is as good as mine.
10. Physicians were not always available: Due to the sparse amount of new territory in the United States, licensed physicians were far and few, creating a market for peddlers selling patent medicine.
While there were a few European physicains who crossed the Atlantic to advance medicine in the newly formed American colonies (Jamestown and Virginia in 1607, Plymouth Colony in 1620, and New Netherlands in 1623), (1, page 306)
Most physicians in America were homegrown and poorly trained, mostly learning on the job as apprentices. In fact, "until 1769 the term doctor was not even employed in the colonies." (21, page 307)
There would have been very few physicians away from original settlements, villages or cities in America, and only a passing few poorly trained physicians on the frontier. Costs would have been relatively expensive for poor colonists, who often paid with tobacco or corn. (21, pages 263, 307-308)
Sick colonists may also benefit from prayers offered by American physicians, as many were also preachers of the gospel. (1, page 306)
So one can easily see how such proprietary preparations must have been eagerly sought after by people who were sick, especially the poor -- which most people were -- even if they tasted horrible and contained secret remedies that were sometimes nothing different than what a physician would offer, and sometimes nothing more than alcohol.
In fact, botanic, or patent medicine, was such a booming industry during the 17th and 18th centuries that even well respected physicians and surgeons entered the arena, sometimes as sellers, and sometimes by attributing their names to such products. Some physicians made a lot of money doing this.
Some, as they made their rounds, the oils, ointments, plasters, drinks, etc. that they would use and recommend were products they profited from. Such "family doctors" would charge for their preparations as opposed to their services. (1, page 409)
So even those who chose to stick with a licensed physician didn't know if they were getting actual approved remedies, or patent remedies. In this way, there were times when it was difficult to tell the difference between licensed and quack medicine.
For references, see "1600-1900: Botanic medicine becomes a craze, part 4."
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