July 16, 2012

A dose of patent medicine history

Patent medicine: Better for collecting than for medical care

By JULIE ROBINSON ROBARDS, Collection Reflections

---- — 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.


Several significant events in the mid-1860s set the stage for the Traveling Medicine Show: The nation was in desperate need of healing after the Civil War, and the West began to open up with the discovery of gold in California.

Furthermore, weekly newspapers were established in nearly every small town across America. Publications were dependent upon advertisers, and patent medicine peddlers were in need of advertising. They bombarded the press with aggressive advertising campaigns that paved the way for charismatic salesmen.

Thanks to Hollywood, we’re all familiar with the traveling doctor hawking his way through the Wild West selling miracle elixirs. They were often portrayed as charlatans who preyed on the desperate, weak and infirm by promising renewed health and vitality. As corny as they seem in the movies, such characters really did exist — and so did the “medicines” they sold.

To draw a crowd, these showmen were often accompanied by some sort of entertainment, such as an animal act or music show. One of the most notable peddlers of the era was the Rev. Fletcher Sutherland and his lovely singing daughters, whose long, flowing hair was testimony to the amazing power of “Seven Sutherland Sisters Hair Grower,” an alcohol, vegetable and water preparation, that reaped the preacher $2.75 million in revenue between 1881 and 1918.


One of the most exploited topical remedies of the day was snake oil, and although the connotation has come to denote chicanery, at one time it was a legitimate treatment for pain. Native Americans were known to use rattle-snake grease for treating rheumatism, and during the building of the transcontinental railroad, thousands of oriental laborers used an ointment made from the Chinese water snake to treat sore joints and aching muscles.

It wasn’t long before a cowboy named Clark Stanley dubbed himself the “Rattlesnake King” and began to take advantage of the curative benefits of snake oil. At the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition, Stanley hawked his medicine before a captivated audience. Dressed in a fancy western outfit, he slaughtered hundreds of live rattle snakes on stage and processed their fluids in front of the spellbound crowd.

Touting its curative powers, Stanley proclaimed “Stanley’s Snake Oil is a wonderful pain destroying compound — the strongest and best liniment known for the cure of all pain and lameness. When used externally, it treats rheumatism, neuralgia, sciatica, lame back, lumbago, contracted muscles, toothache, sprains and swellings. Furthermore it cures frost bites, chill blains, bruises, sore throat, bites of animals, insects and reptiles. It is good for every thing a liniment should be good for — it promises immediate relief and for only fifty cents a bottle.”


In 1905, journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams wrote a series of articles on the dangers of patent medicines called “The Great American Fraud.” 

Published in Colliers Weekly, it was illustrated with the image of a huge skull with teeth made of patent medicine bottles and a caption that read “Death’s Laboratory” and “ The Patent Medicine Trust — Palatable Poison for the Poor.” 

This lead to the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, and the heyday of patent medicine came to an end.

Julie Robards is an antiques journalist and dealer living in Upper Jay. She is the author of two published books on celluloid, an advisor to several antique price guides and a writer for AntiqueWeek Newspaper since 1995. She may be reached through her websites or