Traveling Medicine Shows and 19th Century American Medicine

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A fool and his money are soon parted. - English proverb.

The American medicine show, in its heyday of the 1880s and 1890s, was a sight to behold. It combined an entertaining theatrical performance with a fast-talking sales pitch that succeeded time and again at persuading an amazed audience to part with its money. After all, convinced you'd seen with your own eyes the miraculous healing of the sick with just a sip of the "secret formula" being offered, wouldn't you rush to buy a bottle - or two - of this newly patented elixir? Hurry, supplies are limited!

Unfortunately, by the time you realized you'd been had, the medicine showmen were long gone and off to the next town. But how did they convince the 19th century population to part with their limited funds? The pioneers were certainly not fools, but the medicine showmen had certain factors in their favor.

Easy pickings? Contributing to the favorable reception given medicine showmen was the distrustful attitude toward medical doctors in America, the media blitz underway by the patent medicine trade, and simply the hunger for entertainment.

The 19th Century American Medical Scene. Although the 19th century saw significant scientific advances, especially in Europe, medical training for physicians in America was largely a profit based, free-wheeling business. For example:
  • Physicians in America were not required to undertake more than four or five months of training to receive a degree until the very end of the 19th century;
  • It was not until 1900 that a Bachelor of Arts degree was required by the medical school of Harvard for admission; and
  • In some cases, you could simply send in your tuition fee and receive a diploma in the mail.
    This practice of "diploma mills" did not inspire a lot of confidence that the professional knew all that much more than anyone else. When you add the pure impracticality of traveling long distances to a medical facility, pioneer Americans were more likely to self medicate themselves with folk medicine and homespun therapies than to put their trust in the services of a doctor. Well aware of these conditions was the patent medicine trade and, of course, the sales force of the traveling medicine showmen.
Patent Medicine. Before the age of regulations by the Food and Drug Administration, there was little reason to inhibit the use of creative and outrageous cure-all claims made by the patent medicine industry or, for that matter, anyone who wanted to slap a label on a bottle. These cure-alls contained dubious, sometimes poisonous, ingredients and were often incredibly high in alcohol content. [See links to information on Patent Medicine.] Eventually the term "snake-oil" took hold to signify the ineffectiveness of the product.
Medicine Show Tricks of the Trade. Providing entertainment while pitching the promise of a cure for just about anything and everything that ailed you was certainly not an American invention, but the clever traveling medicine show quickly adapted their performace to fit the lifestyle of the pioneer society. For instance, the medicine show pitchman knew that a performance exploiting the topics of religion, patriotism, the medicine of Native Americans or new developments in science would hold his audience enthralled.

Related links:  Links checked July/August 2013

New!  The Find(s) of July/August:

Passion for the Past: The World of a 19th Century Country Doctor

19th Century Doctors in the U.S. - a short article from the Rose Melnick Medical Museum.

19th Century - Medical Science, Hygiene, And Surgery - a historical overview from the site Old and Sold.


The Toadstool Millionaires: Contents - A Social History of Patent Medicines in America before Federal Regulation. By James Harvey Young, PhD. From the site is the contents of this book originally published in 1961. It chronicles the rise of the patent medicine trade from its beginnings in colonial America until passage of the first federal food and drug law. Of particular interest, see Chapter 12: Medicine Show.

Peddling Snake Oil: Investigative Files - a great article on the history of patent medicine by Joe Nickel. From - Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, and also from this site: Snake Oil: A Guide for Connoisseurs

Cleaning Up the Patent-Medicine and Other Evils - an article from

The Patent Medicine Menace - an article from the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

The Name that Launched a Million Bottles - an article from the Vanderbilt Medical Center on the patent medicine, Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound. Marketed as a "female complaint" nostrum, this cure had a high alcohol content!

A Tribute to the Frontier Doctor - quackery aside, they did what they could. This article, by Fredrick R. Boling, points out that 19th century pioneer medicine was "90 percent art and 10 percent science," but goes on to give credit where credit was due.

Hopkins History: Mary Elizabeth Garrett, Founding Benefactor of the School of Medicine, Nancy McCall, Special to The Gazette The Johns Hopkins Gazette: February 12, 2001 - an interesting article on one of the first examples of "coercive philanthropy" among women philanthropists that resulted in a higher standard of medical training and equal rights for women's education.

Here Today, Here Tomorrow - Medicine Show - Part 1 of 2 - historical images of booklets and advertisements from the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Also of interest at this site, under the History of Medicine section:

Time, Tide and Tonics: The Patent Medicine Almanac in America
NLM Exhibitions and Public Programs - many topics, including:
Elizabeth Blackwell - That Girl There is a Doctor of Medicine: America's First Woman M.D.
Historical Works: Table of Contents - full text of digitized books (1610 - 1914).

Patent Medicine of the Old West

Laudanum Use in the 19th Century - at the blog Seduced by History

A site from down under...
Quacks and Quackery - from the Australian site Pandora Archive: Pictures of Health series. Similar to the American phenomenon, this site provides information on 19th century Australian medical practices, including Patent Medicine and Therapies.

Print Resources:
Anderson, Ann (2000) Snake Oil, Hustlers and Hambones: The American Medicine Show, McFarland & Company Inc., Jefferson, North Carolina and London.


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