The Golden Age of Quackery

The following is an article from the book Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History Again.

Go ahead and scoff at the cure-alls and tonics concocted in the 1800s, but know this: taken in large enough quantities, they'd make people forget what ailed them.


In the 19th century, doctors were few and far between: which may have been a good thing, since medical practices weren't anywhere near an exact science. Patients took their chances: bloodletting, purging, sweating, and freezing were standard operating procedures. Blistering was also in vogue, based on the notion that the body could harbor only one ailment at a time. The theory was that the pain of raw blisters would drive out the pain of just about anything else. Many doctors carried a supply of acid and other skin scorchers. If they ran short, a hot poker from the hearth worked just as well.


Amputations were also popular; hence the nickname "sawbones" for doctors. There also was something called "trepanning" that involved drilling holes in the patient's skull to relieve pressure on the brain.


When electricity came into everyday use in the late 1800s, doctors quickly discovered the healthy jolt it could provide to their incomes. One doctor advertised a range of electric brushes, corsets, hats, and belts to cure everything from constipation to malaria.


Calling a doctor was a last resort. In some communities, the doctor moonlighted as the local undertaker. Mothers, who made their own home remedies, did most of the doctoring. Sometimes an apothecary, who could grind together a more exotic medication, was consulted. But in the 19th-century spirit of unbridled and unregulated American capitalism, it wasn't long before Mom got a little mass-produced help from the medicine men.

Doctor Chilton offered a guaranteed "Fever and Ague Cure," Doctor Rowell sold an "Invigorating Tonic... unrivaled as a cathartic" -a fancy name for bowel loosener. One of the most successful medicine men was Doctor Ayer, who used saturation newspaper ads to create product demand, and mail order to meet it. No prescriptions were needed to buy Ayer's Cherry Pectoral for coughs, colds, asthma, consumption; Ayer's Cathartic Pills for constipation, dyspepsia, biliousness; Ayer's Sarsaparilla, a surefire blood purifier; or Ayer's Hair Vigor to put an end to gray hair.


Ayer and company had plenty of competition: Parker's Tonic was among the toughest, a cure for just about any internal ailment. The tonic definitely provided a quick fix -it contained 40 percent alcohol. For children's coughs, colds, and runny noses, Allen's Lung Balsam was a staple; for adult ailments there was Perry Davis's All-Purpose Pain-Killer. Doctor Thomas' Electric Oil was guaranteed to cure everything from a toothache (five minutes) to a backache (two hours) to lameness (two days) and deafness (two days). All of these tonics shared one characteristic: they contained opium. The Electric Oil was also laced with alcohol and chloroform.


This army of humanitarians busily relieving the suffering of the masses contained a few charlatans and swindlers. Take the Killmer brothers, Andral and Joseph, for example. Doctor Killmer's U & O Meadow Plant Ointment allegedly eased suffering from more than 45 ailments -some of which he invented himself. Doctor Killmer's Swamp Root Kidney, Liver, and Bladder Cure worked its magic on pimples, diabetes, syphilis, and something called "internal slime fever." But best of all was Doctor Killmer's Ocean-Weed Heart Remedy, which was advertised to cure "sudden death." Maybe it worked. There's no record of anyone every demanding a refund on the money-back guarantee.


The Killmer brothers became millionaires, as did several other patent medicine moguls. These "wholesale druggists" refined print media advertising, product packaging, and direct mail sales -all hallmarks of American mass-market retailing. Their free samples and revolutionary one-time-only introductory offers were very popular. They also came up with the discreet "plain brown wrapper" for milady's feminine products, many of which contained alcohol, opium, morphine, cocaine, and even arsenic (in some beauty aids).

But the newly minted millionaires couldn't have had as much fun as the hucksters who operated the traveling medicine shows that went from town to town like a small carnival, complete with bands, dancers, jugglers, musicians, and skit actors. The entertainment was free, but the inevitable hard sells of exclusive elixirs -a specially blended sarsaparilla, a balsam brew, or a genuine kickapoo cure-all- paid the bills.


Snake oil cures were very popular on the medicine show circuit until exposés by muckraking reporters decreed them to be not only useless but also lacking in authentic snake oil -about the time time that the term snake oil salesman took on its shift connotation.

But that did not stop the self-styled Rattlesnake King, Clark Stanley, from selling his snake oil at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. His routine was to kill and process the rattlesnakes right in front of his potential customers.



By the turn of the century, the great cure-all period was drawing to a close. Germs and bacteria had been discovered; bona fide medical doctoring was on the rise. There were pill-making machines that could turn out millions of pills daily, and some large wholesale drug companies were evolving into pharmaceutical giants and retail chains. In 1906 the federal Pure Food and Drug Act was passed; advertising codes of ethics and ingredient labeling weren't far behind.

Now the ailing public had to go to a drugstore to get their cure. The soda fountain -a fixture in most drugstores- served mineral water (which was thought to be curative) from carbonation machines. Though the medical connection withered away, when Prohibition was enacted, the soda fountain's success was assured -at least for a little while. Root beer and ice cream sodas were the order of the day.

Unfortunately, in the long run, soda fountains couldn't compete with the money brought in by the shelves and shelves of mass-produced cold, headache, and heartburn relievers -to say nothing of the beauty aids, school supplies, and canned goods, and batteries. Welcome to the drugstore of today.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Plunges Into History Again.

The book is a compendium of entertaining information chock-full of facts on a plethora of history topics. Uncle John's first plunge into history was a smash hit - over half a million copies sold! And this sequel gives you more colorful characters, cultural milestones, historical hindsight, groundbreaking events, and scintillating sagas.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. Check out their website here: Bathroom Reader Institute


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--Doctor Chilton offered a guaranteed “Fever and Ague Cure,”

Interesting. Dr. Chilton was also Hannibal Lector's doctor in Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon.
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