A Newsletter of the White River Valley Museum

January 1996

Patent Medicines

by Dr. Tina Brewster Wray, Curator of Collections


patent medicines

-- with their colorful names and extravagant claims,
patent medicines offered the nineteenth century consumer cures
and remedies for every imaginable ailment.

Patent, or proprietary, medicines reached their height of popularity between 1860 and 1900, and it has been estimated that over 100,000 different brands appeared on the market during this period. Shrewd opportunists took advantage of the lack of federal drug controls to swindle the public with concoctions that contained anything and everything, from skunk cabbage and Oregon grape to kerosene, cocaine and opium. Some, particularly those products sold as tonics or nerve relaxants, contained as much alcohol as hard liquor (relaxing, indeed, but hardly medicinal!).

Although commonly referred to as "patent" medicines, few of these products were patented. One reason was that to obtain a patent, a product had to represent something new and actually useful - a direct contradiction of patent medicines. Instead, the seller would give a fancy name to an old mixture of ingredients and then obtain a trademark on that name which demanded no listing of ingredients, but granted rights of ownership. With the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 (which required the disclosure of product contents), many patent medicine companies were forced out of business. The few surviving firms continued to market their products, but further strengthening of controls on fraudulent or exaggerated claims of curative or therapeutic values resulted in their virtual disappearance by 1950. McElree's Cardui

The WRVM has a modest collection of patent medicines, most of which date to the 1920s and 30s. Included in this collection is the once-popular "McElree's Cardui." Apparently, Reverend R.I. McElree learned of an herbal concoction used by Indian women to relieve menstrual pain. McElree introduced his Cardui in 1879 and sold this product to the Chattanooga Medicine Company in 1882, where it was originally marketed as "McElree's Cardui, The Woman's Tonic." In the 1920s product, the ingredients were listed as: Blessed Thistle, Golden Seal, and 19% alcohol.

These patent medicines came to the museum as part of a large collection of pharmaceutical items and equipment dating from 1890-1950 donated by Tim Frostad. All these items came from a long-time Auburn drugstore owned by Mark Manson, and later by Reuben Frostad and his son, Tim. As such, they provide a fascinating insight into past medicinal practices in the valley, as well as the nation as a whole.

Dr. Tina Brewster Wray