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July 16, 2012

A dose of patent medicine history

Patent medicine: Better for collecting than for medical care

Just recently, a hiker found a stash of old bottles while camping in the woods near Whiteface Mountain. 

All of them were clear glass and about 4-1/2 inches long. Three were nondescript, but one was embossed with the words “Renee’s Magic Oil.”

What the hiker had stumbled upon were patent medicine bottles dating to the early 20th century. The age of the bottles was determined by the fact that they were clear glass, rather than pale blue, the color of bottles made during the mid- to late 1800s.

Although they were worth only a few dollars, the bottles were rich in history. “Renne’s Magic Oil” was concocted in 1874 by William Renne of Pittsfield, Mass. In 1877, Renne sold his patented formula to the Herrick Medicine Company of New York City. The remedy was marketed well into the 1930s, with an advertising slogan that proclaimed: “Try Renne’s Magic Pain Killing Oil — It Works Like a Charm!”


Patent medicines have been around for hundreds of years. They originated in England and first came to America with the early colonists. 

Throughout the 1700s, English medicines were sold through postmasters, goldsmiths and other reputable merchants. However, imports ceased with the Revolutionary War, and from that time forward, American entrepreneurs began to develop similar remedies.

Most of the medications were homemade formulas using vegetable and herb extracts laced with alcohol, bitters and other ingredients. (Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound is a good example.) But as time went on, poisons like strychnine and addictive drugs such as cocaine, opium, morphine and heroin were added for their pain-killing effects. Medicines such as Cocaine Toothache Drops, Vapor-OL Treatment No. 6 (with alcohol and opium), Bayer Heroin, Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup (with morphine) and even Coca-Cola were legal and readily available.

Unfortunately, these laced “medications” did more harm than good. By the time the 20th century dawned, there was a great outcry against the dangers of these miracle “cures.” Alcohol and drug addiction were rampant, and many children had died from overdose in the arms of their trusting mothers.

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