The Thriving Patent Medicine Industry of the Late 1800s

The concept of proprietary medicine, also referred to as patent medicine or “nostrum” or “our remedy”, traces its origins to the 18th century with its manifestation popularity taking course in the 19th and 20th centuries. The patent medicine revolves around the concept of providing solutions to a myriad of medical problems over-the-existing medicine. The use of patent medicine lacks prior testing and approval for safe use and attesting to effectiveness of the drugs. The patent medicine in the 19th century transformed into a booming business after the interaction of the British people and Americans, leading to its spread in different countries and societies. The analysis of the patent medicine illustrates the origins, manifestation, and sprouting of practices of selling proprietary medicine that was based mainly on imagination as the therapeutic agent as a better and viable solution to pharmaceutical drugs.

Brief Background of Patent Medicine in Britain

The origins of the proprietary medicine can be traced to ‘patents of royal favors’ issued by the Royal Family. Medicine patenting followed the letters patent issued by the Royal Family, authorizing specific persons to use the royal endorsement for the advertisements of medicines (Jones, 2019). This led to the manufacturing of tonics and elixirs in England and introduced to the market. The use of the Royal Family endorsement led to the growth of the business following the substantial sales made in the 18th century. This prompted the exportation of medicines to America in the 18th century opening a new frontier for the thriving industry. The high sales of the patented medicine were prevalent and often purchased by all in the society but the poor people. The upper and middle classes constituted the best customers and consumers of the patent medicine – due to the availability of resources to purchase the drugs and access to information – advertised through the print media and roadshows (Tedlow et al., 1987).

Patent Medicine in the Americas

Following the exportation of patent medicine into the United States in the late 18th century – it opened a myriad of new opportunities for businesses and manufacturers to benefit. This led to the enormous thriving of the patent medicine industry in the 19th century, with only measures demanding for chemical patents being passed by the U.S. Congress in 1925 (Tedlow et al., 1987). The manufacturing of patent medicine became a rare opportunity for small businesses to thrive, building their capacity into significant players in the industry. The production of patent medicine was developed as a cure or remedy for almost all medical problems affecting people.

The thriving of the patent medicine industry is characterized by the prevalence of quack cures and self -remedies that were not authenticated and authorized by any government institution. The prevalence of patent medicine was informed by the notion of availability and accessibility of the drugs to the countless number of people (Davis, 1988). The need to provide quick solutions to medical problems that were little understood or not necessarily understood at all led to the thriving of the proprietary medicines. This was coupled by the fact that in areas where doctors were available – they were not trusted by members of the society. Also, in areas where hospitals were available – they were viewed as a place where people go to die. According to Corley (1987), “there existed cultural reasons for the avoidance of professional advice with the British men and women deeply-rooted to the mistrust of doctors.” The mistrust was informed by the rudimentary state of the medical knowledge and limited training that was given in pharmacology (Corley, 1987). However, the two were largely unavailable, prompting the need for viable solutions to medical problems affecting members of the society.

The thriving of nostrum medicine is based on the notion that they offered solutions to a myriad of health problems in a simple, convenient, quick, and inexpensive manner. The medicine was used in diseases such as relieving pains, depression, arthritis, mental illness, women problems, venereal diseases, infant colic, among a vast number of diseases. In children, the proprietary medicine was used to aid in the digestion process, facilitate growth, and feed the blood of the children. From the manufacturers – with some making concoctions of their own were sold to retail stores and individual salesmen (Curth, 2002). In turn, this developed into a traveling medicine show and door to door selling. The two approaches were fundamental to the thriving of the patent medicine industry in the Americas.

Companies such as J.R. Watkins Company that was established in 1868 in Plainview, Minnesota, started with the concoction of different products that were sold using the door-to-door approach. Following the growth of capacity and production demand, the company established new based in Winona, Minnesota in 1885 opening vast opportunities that enabled the company to thrive to a point where in the early 20th century – the Watkins Company grew to become one of the largest direct-sales company in the United States (Digital Public Library of America, n.d.). The concoction of Watkins liniment constituted camphor from the pine trees and capsicum from the red peppers. The extensive sales and demand of the J.R. Watkins products developed into a large company expanding to the production of baking ingredients, spices, cough rubs, cleaning supplies, menthol drops, bath soaps, and vitamin supplements. To date, J.R. Watkins products are used as pain relievers for soreness, minor muscle aches, and stiffness.

The use of traditional herbal remedies was used in the line of patent medicines as natural cures for various diseases. A fusion of roots and tree backs were among the essential ingredients used in the preparation of the nostrum. For example, in the Native American society – the production of the Kickapoo Indian Sagwa, a product developed by the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company of Connecticut, was a famous medicine at the time (Anderson, 2015). The medicine was used for various treatments and cure of diverse diseases proving its profound use and popularity. The Native Americans use, and advancement of traditional herbal medicine to cure diseases is a promotion of the timeless herbal wisdom that such societies enjoyed. The prevalence of proprietary medicine gave room for the traditional nostrum to thrive in a competitive and rapidly transforming business and pharmaceutical world.

Promotion of Patent Medicines Through Advertisements

The promoters of the patent medicines adopted the advertisement approach as one of the most effective ways to reach a broad audience and send the intended message. The promotion of patent medicine is one of the earliest strategies that led to the growth and expansion of the advertisement industry (Mackintosh, 2018). Considered to be one of the earliest and most effective ways to send the intended message regarding the proprietary medicines, advertisements were used as a way to counteract the competitiveness of branded medicines. Studies show that the advertisement of nostrums, such as the strategy used by Liniments and Ointments for the advertisement of snake oil essential for curing all diseases at the time, created a significant effect on the public (Anderson, 2015). Snake oil salesman indicates a lasting synonym for a charlatan committed to sugar-coat information in order to create the intended reaction from the public (Anderson, 2015).

According to Mackintosh (2018), the use of “newspaper advertisements and other printed material achieved two major functions including enhancing sales and exploiting the imagination by increasing consumer confidence, promoting familiarity, and preserving a degree of mystery.” The use of critical experts and celebrities’ endorsement and support was a fundamental part of the advertisement to increase the credibility of the remedy. This is despite a lack of truth basis, evidence, or proof to attest to the significance of the medicines and its effectiveness in treating and curing the intended disease (Trimmer, 1965). The advertisement of proprietary medicine was done in the context of presenting their capacity to cure a range of diseases. However, it remained unverified and uncertified by any authority.

A degree of mystery was an integral part of the advertisements, with many producers not revealing the full extent of the ingredients and contents of the medicines. For example, Dr. Kilmer’s use of the Swamp Root that was advertised as a remarkable cure for kidneys only illustrated that it is made from swamp roots (Palmer, 2003). This presents the use of unspecified swam roots and the use of baobab fruits in making different concoctions purported to be drugs. The level of mystery was essential for the producers to retain the secret of making different drugs to sustain their products in the market. In turn, when assumed to cause a healing effect on the intended disease – the product became even more popular. The mystery enables the imagination to take room with the affected patients imagining that they would heal from the medicine despite knowing nothing from its contents.

The use of patent medicine advertisements was critical as it kept the information in the public eye on the extent to which the drugs can cure a variety of diseases. This encouraged the belief that no disease was out of reach of the patent medicine’s capacity to cure. The advertisements are essential to convenience thousands of ailing members of the public to buy a particular brand of medicine from hundreds of others in the market. In turn, transform the ‘medicine man’s’ role in sales than production (Shaw, 2019). This is devoid of the ingenuity and authenticity of the drug allowing unscrupulous and dubious traders to flood the market. In turn, a vast number of competitors could join the market as they please without the existence of efficient restrictions and control of their practices. Thus, they drove to create brand recognition and brand name as an aspect to influence customers’ decisions to purchase remedies that they understood. Hence, avoid products that intend to provide a substitution to the ones already in the market from established and branded medicines.

The application of touting and door-to-door advertisements are some of the oldest forms of the advertising industry. Touting focused on presenting the medicine as an essential universal panacea. This manifested to creating a more ‘medicine man’ to consumer relationship by advertising the nostrum through door-to-door approach (Palmer, 2003). The door-to-door advertisement enabled a connection between the buyer and the sell, leading to an increase in demand and confidence in curing the stated diseases. The capacity to create more awareness and understanding among the consumers was essential to create a belief in the importance of the drug. Hence, culminate in the increase in sales and profits generation.

Therefore, the nostrum advertisement is as old as journalism. The expansion of print journalism and articles created an opportunity for patent medicine advertisements in more advanced ways. The print articles were essential to reach thousands of customers in different regions. This proved to be fundamental in sending the right message to illustrate the curing capacity of the medicine and its effectiveness (though unverifiable). The print advertisements as well raised a level of confidence and trust in the patent medicines manufacturers that were able to advertise their products (Mackintosh, 2018). This is an assertion of branding the products from reputable companies. Thus, culminate in the improvement of sales from companies deemed trustworthy.

Furthermore, the use of medicine shows was a fundamental for the publicity of patent medicine tracing its origins to the 14th-century European traveling charlatans (Trimmer, 1965). The approach was used to reach the audience from different locations. This is by using the medicine wagon to go to places where people crowded and visited often. The centrality of the use of medicine shows – proved to be effective in creating publicity for the importance of the drugs. Thus, paved the way for new developments and advertisements to enhance the way communication and messages were delivered to the members of the public.

The Proprietary Association – 1881 and the U.S. Government Regulations

In response to the criticisms towards the patent medicines, the Proprietary Association was established in 1881 in support of the press that was benefiting from the advertisements. The association was established with the objective of protecting the stakeholders from any form of regulation from any institution. However, the capacity to meet and sustain their objective was overrun by the need to ascertain safety to the consumers of the remedy. This led to the U.S. Congress enacting the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act. The Pure Food and Drug Act introduced measures that required manufacturers to list the ingredients on the packaging labels of their products (Tedlow et al., 1987). This was in line to limit and eliminate the prevalence of misleading information on the advertisements. 1938 led the Pure Food and Drug Act to demand that manufacturers test their products to ascertain their safety before launching and releasing them to the market. Further, demands on patent medicines were implemented in 1962, demanding for testing of the effectiveness of the drugs.

The passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act by the U.S. Congress marked the beginning of the end of an era of patent medicine. The thriving industry would later be diminished through restrictive regulations passed by the government. The Pure Food and Drug Act set a path for safety and testing for the drugs in readiness for consumption by humans (Tedlow et al., 1987). The testing is critical to avoid unnecessary deaths and addictions from unverified drugs. Scientific transformations are fundamental aspects of the transformation of patent medicine. The expansion of discoveries and education on pharmacology is crucial to the developments in the changes in the patent industry.

Furthermore, the expose such as “The Great American Fraud” by Samuel Hopkins Adams in the Collier’s Weekly marked the transformation of journalism and print media as an advocate of trust (Fee, 2010). The expose led the print industry despite being one of the beneficiaries of the patent medicine advertisements to change tact and demand more accountability to the information published. In turn, patent medicine producers became cautions in launching the products in the market and selling. This is critical for the rapidly expanding industries to increase accountability to the public, that is, for both the print media and the medicine producers and manufacturers.


Anderson, A. (2015). Snake oil, hustlers, and hambones: The American medicine show. McFarland.

Corley, T. A. B. (1987). Interactions between the British and American Patent Medicine Industries 1708—1914. Business and Economic History, 111-129.

Curth, L. (2002). The commercialization of medicine in the popular press: English almanacs 1640–1700. The Seventeenth Century17(1), 48-69.

Davis, J. D. (1988). Medicine, muckraking, and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

Digital Public Library of America. (n.d.). Quack Cures and Self-Remedies: Patent Medicine.

Fee, E. (2010). Samuel Hopkins Adams (1871–1958): journalist and muckraker. American journal of public health100(8), 1390.

Jones, C. L. (2019). The patent medicines industry in Georgian England: by Alan Mackintosh, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, vii+ 323 pp.,£ 79.99 (hardback),£ 63.99 (ebook), ISBN: 978-3-319-69778-9.

Mackintosh, A. (2018). The Legacy of the Patent Medicines Industry. In The Patent Medicines Industry in Georgian England (pp. 261-274). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Mackintosh, A. (2018). Utilizing the Imagination as Therapy. In The Patent Medicines Industry in Georgian England (pp. 211-229). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

Palmer, S. (2003). From popular medicine to medical populism: Doctors, healers, and public power in Costa Rica, 1800–1940. Duke University Press.

Shaw, R. B. (2019). History of the Comstock patent medicine business and Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills. Good Press.

Tedlow, R., Wilkins, M., & Young, J. H. (1987). Interactions between the British and American Patent Medicine Industries 1708-1014′.

Trimmer, E. J. (1965). Medical folklore and quackery. Folklore76(3), 161-175.

Cite this Page

The Thriving Patent Medicine Industry of the Late 1800s . (2022, July 01). Essay Writing . Retrieved August 13, 2022, from
“ The Thriving Patent Medicine Industry of the Late 1800s .” Essay Writing , 01 Jul. 2022,
The Thriving Patent Medicine Industry of the Late 1800s . [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 13 Aug. 2022].
The Thriving Patent Medicine Industry of the Late 1800s [Internet]. Essay Writing . 2022 Jul 01 [cited 2022 Aug 13]. Available from:
Do My paper price
Pages (550 words)
Approximate price: -