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The Toadstool Millionaires:
A Social History of Patent Medicines
in America before Federal Regulation

A Note on the Sources

James Harvey Young, PhD

The public posture of the patent medicine maker is easier to observe throughout history than are his private ways. Newspapers, saved mainly for other matter than their advertising, preserve it nonetheless, and nostrum advertising is a funda-mental source of the present book, from the Boston News-Letter of October 4, 1708, which contained America's "first," to the huge dailies of nearly two centuries later, which contained the blatant appeals condemned by Samuel Hopkins Adams.

The footnotes refer to only a few of the advertisements sur-veyed in many repositories. Libraries most frequented for their newspaper holdings were the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, 'the New-York Historical Society of New York City, the Maryland Historical Society, the University of Illinois Library, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and the Emory University Library. An effort was made to sample advertising in papers published in different regions, in villages and cities, and for different audiences: hence the Police Gazette and Lookout for Christ and the Church find a place as well as the New York Times.

In addition to advertising in newspapers, patent medicine makers got out countless broadsides, posters, trade cards, handbills, brochures, books, and :other promotional literature. Some of this gave the copywriter much more space in which to develop his ideas than was customary in newspaper columns, with not even the deterrent of the mild censorship which publishers sometimes exercised. Throwaway advertising is of great importance as a source for nostrum history, and happily some of it has been preserved.

The richest hoard examined for this work forms part of the Bella C. Landauer Collection of the New-York Historical Society. The best examples of 18th-century 'broadsides were found in the American Antiquarian Society and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Posters, brochures, and labels submitted for copyright-ing purposes during the mid- 19th century are to be found in the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress, and in the same library's Rare Book Division, in the Toner Collection, is a fine assortment of pseudo-medical materials mailed to a physician later in the same century. The best collection of nostrum literature of the early 20th century is in the Department of Investigation of the American Medical Association in Chicago. Hundreds of folders, each bearing the name of a medicine, contain thousands of items, the sources for the three useful Nostrums and Quackery volumes issued by the Associa-tion in 1911, 1921, and 1936.

Other repositories in which significant 'items of this type were found include the National Library of Medicine and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia Library, the New York Academy of Medicine Library, the Collection of William Robertson Coe in the Yale University Library, the Yale Medical Library, the Chicago Historical Society, the John Crerar Public Library in Chicago, the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, and the Institute of the History of Pharmacy at the University of Wisconsin. Gerald Carson of Middleton, New York, permitted the author to look over his pamphlet materials. The author has formed his own small collection of patent medicine ephemera discovered in second-hand bookstores and presented by friends. Generous contributions were made by Lawrence B. Romaine of Weathercock House, Middleboro, Massachusetts, and by Norris Goode, Louis Hoeflin, and Charles Jones, of the Virden [Ill.] Recorder.

One form of nostrum literature that the term "throwaway" did not originally fit was the patent medicine almanac, designed to be kept for a year and, often, with financial accounts scribbled on its margins, made a permanent part of a family's archives. Good files of patent medicine almanacs were examined in the Landauer 'Collection, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and the Hostetter Corporation of Pittsburgh. A bound collection of 1889 Ayer almanacs in various languages is located in the Peabody Institute Library, Baltimore. Milton Drake of Riverdale, New York, has prepared a Check-List and Census of American Almanacs.

Some pre-1906 patent medicines, as well as literature about them, survive. The author examined many such pills and purgatives in the Division of Medical Sciences of the Smithsonian Institution, the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, the New-York Historical Society, the Rochester [New York] Museum of Arts and Sciences, the Fort Pulaski National Monument near Savannah, Georgia, and the Samuel Aker, David and George Kass Collection in Albany, New York. The author has his own assortment, found in drugstores in Illinois and Georgia and generously sought out for him in upstate New York by Robert M. Bevan of the Upjohn Company. Friends aware of the research in progress have contributed packages that came within their possession.

Patent medicine promoters have not been forward about giving their private papers to manuscript repositories. Nor have they written memoirs, except for the fictionized accounts of their great discoveries designed as vehicles of promotion. The author has found no manufacturer's 'account of his career so candid as the perhaps boastful revelations of Violet McNeal concerning the medicine show business, entitled Four White Horses and a Brass Band (Garden City, 1947). An occasional newspaper interview, usually anonymous, has claimed to expose the inside of the proprietary business (as in the New York Tribune for April 25, 1886), and the muckraking sleuths like Adams uncovered a great deal. But medicine makers themselves have been close-mouthed, except in their wrath at criticism. On the manufacturing level, the annual reports of the Proprietary Association, of which there are some turn-of-the-century examples at the University of Wisconsin, give some insight into the problems of the large-scale producers as they saw them. Standard Remedies, begun in 1915 and long the spokesman for the major manufac-turers, contains short historical sketches of individual companies, undoubtedly written with information supplied by them. A good file of this magazine may be found in the Library of the Depart-ment of Agriculture.

Detailed information on some individual proprietors, the result of careful inquiry, may be discovered in the folders in the American Medical Association offices. Harvey Washington Wiley's Bureau of Chemistry in the Department of Agriculture, as the files reveal, was concerned with nostrums in the years preceding 1906. These records are to be found in Record Group 97 in the National Archives. Helpful counsel with respect to their use came from Helen T. Finneran and Harold T. Pinkett.

The officers of the Hostetter Corporation as of 1956 permitted the author to examine the Minute Book of the corporation's annual meetings, 1889-1935. This contained a record of divi-dends issued and, occasionally, in the president's report, some comment on the problems confronting management.

Advertising agents, who became the right-hand men of medicine proprietors, have been less reticent. Notable autobiographies are George Presbury Rowell, Forty Tears an Advertising Agent, 1865-1905 (New York, 1926)-.Rowell marketed his own remedy-and Claude C. Hopkins, My Life in Advertising (New York, 1927).

Helpful in seeing the wholesaler's point of view in the second quarter of the 19th century was a small collection of papers from the Springfield, Illinois, drug firm of Birchall and Owen which the author secured; village general store records were examined for patent medicine references in the Illinois State Historical Society and the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

The critique of patent medicines has been found primarily in the journals and proceedings of the chief critics -- physicians and pharmacists. Exact references are cited in footnotes to Chapters 5, 10, 13, and 14. Especially to be noted are the Journal of the American Medical Association, the American Journal of Pharmacy, the American Pharmaceutical Association's Proceedings, and the Druggists Circular and Chemical Gazette. Besides articles, there were issued many separately printed pamphlets and books, written by practitioners of the healing arts, attacking quackery. Libraries used extensively for their journals and pamphlets were the New York Academy of Medicine Library, the National Library of Medicine, the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy Library, the Lloyd Library in Cincinnati, the Library of the American Pharmaceutical Association in Washington, the Li-brary of the Southern College of Pharmacy in Atlanta, and the A. W. Calhoun Medical Library of Emory University.

A force for more decent advertising was the trade periodical Printer's Ink, which paid much attention to patent medicines. A card file index which the author was permitted to consult in the New York City editorial offices was very helpful.

The files of the Ladies' Home Journal and Collier's and other anti-nostrum muckraking magazines were studied. Several engrossing hours were spent in Beaufort, South Carolina, on April 5, 1955, talking with Samuel Hopkins Adams about his famous series, "The Great American Fraud."

The American Medical Association materials and the Bureau of Chemistry records, mentioned above, are, of course, basic sources for the criticism of patent medicines early in this century. The latter must be supplemented by Wiley's private papers in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress. Wiley's An Autobiography (Indianapolis, 1930) should be mentioned at this point. On the fight for a Pure Food and Drugs Law, pertinent references from these manuscripts, from the Congressional Record, and from Congressional documents are given in the foot-notes to Chapter 14.

Many conversations have provided the author with informa-tion or ideas about interpretation. Especially to be mentioned are those with Oscar E. Anderson, Jr., the Atomic Energy Commission; Jacques Barzun, Columbia University; Thomas W. Christopher, Emory University School of Law; Gerald Carson; Frederick J. Cullen, then executive vice-president of the Proprietary Association; David Donald, Princeton University; John Duffy, Louisiana State University; Oliver Field, Director, Department of Investigation, American Medical Association; George B. Griffenhagen, Director, Division of Communications, American Phar-maceutical Association; Richard Hofstadter, Columbia Univer-sity; Blake McKelvey, Rochester, N.Y., City Historian; Carl C. Pfeiffer, then Director of the Basic Sciences, Emory University School of Medicine; David M. Potter, Yale University; Richard H. Shryock, Librarian of the American Philosophical Society; Harold C. Syrett, Columbia University; Barbara Young, M.D., Baltimore, and W. Harvey Young, Galesburg, Illinois.

Officials of the Food and Drug Administration of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, have been extremely courteous and helpful with their advice. Wallace F. Janssen, Director of Public Information; William W. Goodrich, Assistant General Counsel in the Welfare Department's Office of the General Counsel; Gilbert S. Goidhammer, Assistant Director of the Division of Regulatory Management; and John J. McCann, Jr., Chief of the Communications Standards Branch; should be mentioned particularly. Since the FDA did not begin to operate until after the enactment of the 1906 law, the agency records are not germane to the present volume but to its sequel.

Three theses were of interest: James Gordon Burrow's University of Illinois doctoral dissertation (1956), "Political and Social Policies of the American Medical Association, 1901--1941"; David L. Dykstra's University of Wisconsin doctoral dissertation (1951), "Patent and Proprietary Medicine: Regulation and Control Prior to 1906"; and Jacques Marc Quen's Yale University School of Medicine thesis (1954), "A Study of Dr. Elisha Perkins and Perkinism."

In the category of secondary works, two background volumes proved indispensable: Richard H. Shryock, The Development of Modern Medicine (New York, 1947) realizes in a brilliant way the intent of its subtitle, An Interpretation of the Social and Scientific Factors Involved; Edward Kremers and George Urdang, A History of Pharmacy (Philadelphia, 1940), sets the broader stage of pharmacy on which nostrums played their role.

Henry W. Holcombe, during the later 1930's and early 1940's, wrote sketches of all the medicine concerns which issued private die proprietary stamps under a Civil War tax law that was repealed in 1883. These articles appeared in various philatelic periodicals, from which Holcombe took tear-sheets to assemble into a volume which he presented to the New York Public Library. Later Holcombe prepared a series on the stamps of medicine companies during the Spanish-American War, published in Weekly Philatelic Gossip from 1955 to 1958. The sketches vary in degree of detail; some contain information learned by Holcombe through visits to the companies.

A brief list of secondary works which have been of help to the author would include the following: Oscar E. Anderson, Jr., The Health of a Nation, Harvey W. Wiley and the Fight for Pure Food (Chicago, 1958); Thomas D. Clark, Pills, Petticoats, and Plows, The Southern Country Store (Indianapolis, 1944), and The Southern Country Editor (Indianapolis, 1948); Morris Fishbein, Fads in Quackery and Healing (New York, 1932); Ralph M. Hower, The History of an Advertising Agency: N. W. Ayer & Son at Work, 1869-1949 (Revised ed., Cambridge, Mass., 1949); John Phillips, compiler, The Composition of Certain Patent and Proprietary Medicines (Chicago, 1917); Madge E. Pickard and R. Carlyle Buley, The Midwest Pioneer: His Ills, Cures & Doctors (New York, 1946); Frank Presbrey, The History and Development of Advertising (New York, 1929); James J. Walsh, Cures, The Story of Cures That Failed (New York, 1930).

In preparing the last chapter, especially helpful were the Food and Drug Administration Annual Reports, the files of the Food Drug Cosmetic Law Journal, and a book by James Cook that, in its first version, appeared as a series of articles in the New York Post during May and June 1957, Remedies and Rackets, The Truth About Patent Medicines Today (New York, 1958). The most thorough study of current unorthodox practices with respect to a single disease was made by Ruth Walrad for the Committee on Arthritis Advertising of the Arthritis and Rheumatism Foundation, The Misrepresentation of Arthritis Drugs and Devices in the United States (New York, 1960).

My own previous writing on patent medicine history, which reappears in some measure in this book, includes: "Patent Medi-cines in the Early Nineteenth Century," The South Atlantic Quarterly, 48 (Oct. 1949), 557-65; "Patent Medicines: The Early Post-Frontier Phase," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 46 (Autumn, 1953), 254-64; "The Origin of Patent Medicines in America," The Chemist and Druggist, 172 (Sep. 9, 1959), 9-16; "Patent Medicines: An Early Example of Competi-tive Marketing," Journal of Economic History, 20 (Dec. 1960), 648-56; and two articles written in collaboration with George B. Griffenhagen, entitled "Old English Patent Medicines in America," of which a summary version appeared in Chemist and Druggist, 167 (June 29, 1957), 714-22, and a longer version as Paper 10 in United States National Museum Bulletin 218, Contributions from the Museum of History and Technology, pub-lished by the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, 1959). Three articles were in press: "American Medical Quackery in the Age of the Common Man," The Mississippi Valley Historical Review; "Thomas W. Dyott-Pioneer Nostrum Promoter," Journal of the American Pharmaceutical Association (Practical Pharmacy Edition); and "Patent Medicines and Indians," The Emory University Quarterly.

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This page was posted on June 1, 2002.