Before the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906, the marketing of medicines was completely unregulated, and even the most morally suspect druggists and entrepreneurs were free to claim that just about any product had curative qualities. Electrical devices, snake oil and even Coca-Cola were advertised as having health benefits, and such claims stretched the truth – and then some. Some vendors used elaborate and entertaining shows to market their products, while others peppered their ads with sophisticated sounding, pseudoscientific language and terminology. These products promised to treat those in need, even without evidence to back up the claims made. This little tour through history is sure to fascinate anyone interested in medicine.
10. Ayer’s Sarsaparilla
A favorite from the 19th century, Ayer’s Sarsaparilla was made using a combination of roots such as sarsaparilla, mandrake, stillingia and yellow dock. It was basically a drink not all that different from root beer, but it was touted as a magical cure-all tonic. Apparently, it was the ideal treatment for a copious list of complaints, among them blood disorders, tumors, jaundice, dyspepsia, emaciation and mercury poisoning. High claims for a humble bottled beverage.
As an antioxidant, sarsaparilla does have some documented health benefits, and it can reportedly combat fatigue through the plant’s natural steroidal glycosides. It’s no miracle cure, though – even if it does make a very agreeable drink on a hot afternoon.
9. Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic
Despite the disconcerting claim that this medicine “makes children and adults as fat as pigs,” Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic was actually sold as a preventative measure against malaria and as a treatment for the disease’s associated symptoms. In 1878, Edwin Wiley Grove created the tonic in Paris, Tennessee by suspending crystallized quinine in liquid before sweeteners and lemon flavor were added. Although the tonic wasn’t quite “tasteless,” neither was it quite as sharp and bitter as quinine on its own.
Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic was probably effective against some mild strains of malaria, but it was useless as a preventative medicine. Why? Because without any malarial pathogens in a person’s blood, the quinine simply makes its way through their system. In most cases, the World Health Organization (WHO) no longer suggests quinine as a good malaria treatment. Still, Grove made millions out of the tonic, and come 1890 his product was outselling Coca-Cola.
8. Hamlin’s Wizard Oil
First launched in 1861, Hamlin’s Wizard Oil took the world by storm. Not only was it claimed that this so-called medicine cured a string of ailments – including lameness, neuralgia, deafness, earaches, sprains, quinsy, cramps, bleeding gums, cholera, ulcers and “bites of dogs” – it also apparently took away all pain from “man or beast.”
Perhaps the success of Hamlin’s Wizard Oil was due to the fact that, according to the US Food and Drug Administration, it boasted “one of the most popular and spectacular of the big touring medicine shows” and even gave circuses and Wild West shows a run for their money. The oil consisted of a potent cocktail of ingredients, among them ammonia, chloroform and turpentine, and it also contained up to 70 percent alcohol. It could be rubbed on sore areas as a liniment or even taken internally. In 1916, then manager of the company Lawrence B. Hamlin was handed a $200 fine for publicly claiming that the product could “check the growth and permanently kill cancer.”
John Stith Pemberton was a Confederate veteran and druggist who made both medicines and soda drinks, and he’s best known as the inventor of Coca-Cola. In 1886, he stumbled upon the tasty beverage while trying to create an invigorating non-alcoholic drink. Pemberton used the kola nut as an ingredient in his concoction because it was believed to have several beneficial properties, including the power to cure hangovers and act as an aphrodisiac. At the experimental stage, carbonated water was added to Pemberton’s brew by accident, and there was no going back. He and his team realized that they’d hit on something good.
Interestingly, carbonated water itself was considered a tonic at the time, and the US Pharmacopeia had listed it as a “medicated water” in 1820. The new Coca-Cola was launched as a medicine in view of the notion that fizzy water was health-giving. Pemberton himself said that his product could cure impotence, headaches and morphine addiction – claims that sound dubious at best.
6. Harness’ Electropathic Belts
In 1885, Cornelius Bennett Harness founded his London-based company, the Electropathic and Zander Institute. The company offered customers access to the purported therapeutic properties of electricity – which was then still a new and mysterious marvel. Bennett’s newfangled contraption, the Electropathic Belt, was said to instill people with “new life” and to cure rheumatism, sciatica, liver complaints, weakness, nervousness, debility and sleeplessness. However, the company was forced to close down in 1894 amid allegations of shady business practices and due to the plain fact that the belt didn’t work.
Dr. George Scott, another entrepreneur who marketed electricity as a cure for many ills, even sold electropathic corsets. Scott claimed that his wares were made based on scientific principles and that they imbued the human body with “Odic force.”
5. Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment
The Food and Drug Administration was set up in 1906. Part of its job was to stop scammers like Clark Stanley from selling their dubious products – which as well as having unfounded health claims could also be downright harmful. Snake oil medicines were purportedly made using Chinese snakes, and it was claimed that they could treat multiple ills, including rheumatism, toothache and sciatica.
Clark Stanley’s show is said to have involved butchering hundreds of rattlesnakes, apparently in order for him to prepare his so-called medicine – which was on the market from the late 19th century until around 1916. However, a chemical test found that in reality the liniment didn’t even contain snake products; moreover, it was judged to be of no worth, and Stanley was landed with a fine. Perhaps surprisingly, snake oils and their ilk aren’t entirely a thing of the past, and according to CBS News, people facing incurable diseases like MS and cancer still turn to ostensible cures that have no scientific basis.
4. M.S Borden’s FatOff Obesity Cream
Although there’s not much information available about M.S Borden’s FatOff Obesity Cream, it’s a pretty safe bet that it didn’t work. The product was sold alongside hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of other patented “medicines” with names like Warner’s Safe Cure for Diabetes and Kickapoo Indian Sagwa.
The sale of these magical cures was totally unregulated, and the packaging often didn’t even state what the products contained. According to the Food and Drug Administration, “Labels did not list ingredients and warnings against misuse were unheard of. What information the public received came frequently from bitter experience.” It was the agriculture industry that first began to see the need for federal regulation and laws against “adulteration.”
3. Chin Reducer and Beautifier
In the 1890s, New York-based Professor Eugene Mack sold his Chin Reducer and Beautifier for $10 – the equivalent of $250 today. The bizarre contraption gave the wearer a massage that, it was claimed, could not only deal with swollen glands, but also dispense with flabbiness, give “a rounded contour to thin, scrawny necks,” and add a “healthy color to the cheeks.” If the ad was to be believed, it could even make lines and wrinkles a thing of the past.
And it wasn’t the only gadget of its kind. Exploiting the public’s general lack of medical knowledge, contraptions like nose correctors, spring-loaded dimple machines and electric face-molding masks were all introduced in the following decades.
2. Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People
Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People were sold between the late 1800s and early 1900s. These little wonders were not only claimed to treat people with pasty complexions but were also touted as a remedy for chorea, partial paralysis, neuralgia, heart palpitations and general weakness.
The pills were made by Ontario-native George T. Fulford and marketed under the Dr. Williams Medicine Company brand. Many of the advertisements appeared as if they were news stories and contained extraordinary accounts of recovery due to individuals’ use of the strange pink pills. Yet although, because they contained iron, they may have provided some benefit to people with anemia, it’s unlikely that they did much else.
1. Dr. Young’s Rectal Dilators
In 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed, a piece of legislation that brought many so-called medicines into disrepute for their outrageous and shamelessly untrue claims. Even so, it would take another 32 years for medical devices to be regulated and controlled in the same manner (with the passing of the 1938 US Federal Food, Drugs and Cosmetics Act).
Speaking of medical devices, rectal dilators like these were said to train the muscles to function properly, supposedly curing hemorrhoids (known as piles) and constipation. However, in 1940, a consignment of rectal dilators was seized and hauled into court in New York over charges that they were misbranded. Statements like “you need have no fear of using them too much” were called into question – indeed, it was accepted that, on the contrary, the directed usage was “dangerous to health” – and the consignment was destroyed.