Friday, March 5, 2010

Quack Medicine Advertising Disguised as Military History!

I have posted before how - even decades afterwards - patent/quack medicine vendors specifically advertised their nostrums and snake oil to Civil War veterans.

I've recently added an item to my collection that reinforces this theme: a pamphlet entitled "Decisive Battles" (c. 1899) with a thrilling illustration of Civil War combat on the front. On the inside front cover is a list of about twenty "Decisive Battles of the World" from Marathon (490 B.C.) to Hastings (1066) to Waterloo (1815).

Unfortunately, the "military history" ends there...kind of. "Decisive Battles" was a small and short (16-page) pamphlet put out by the "Dr. Williams Medicine Co." of Schenectady, New York, makers of the famous "Pink Pills for Pale People."

Military themes were a hallmark of patent medicine advertising, and - as the pamphlet begins:

"The battles enumerated on the preceeding page are those which have most influenced the history of the world. Not less important are the battles being constantly fought with disease, the outcome of which is to have a decisive influence on the lives of the sufferers and their families."

To that end, within the pages of "Decisive Battles" is a wee bit more military history, such as it is, in the form of Civil War veteran testimonials to "Pink Pills." Indeed, of the 10 short stories of miracle cures in the booklet, several are from veterans, such as this one:

Little Less Than a Miracle

From the Palladium, Oswego, N.Y.

Mr. S. R. Hunter, of South Scriba, N.Y., is a blacksmith, and for six years has resided at South Scriba. he was born at Henderson Village, Jefferson County, N.Y., sixty years ago, and when President Lincoln called for volunteers to suppress the rebellion, he quit the forge and was one of the first men in Northern New York as a private in Company K, Ninety-fourth New York Volunteers. Returning at the close of the war he took up his early ocupation, but the hardships of camp life had left him almost a physical wreck.

Sciatic rheumatism developed, and for years he was doctored and spent hundreds of dollars without obtaining relief. Three years ago his limbs became paralyzed, and he was unable to walk. Physicians gave him no relief, and he was unable to get about except by dragging himself from place to place by his arms. He says it was no trick for him to run a common darning needle into the muscles of his limbs without feeling the slightest sensation, and he believed that he would never be anything but a hopeless uinvalid. The remainder of the story of this remarkable case is best told in his own language to a reporter of the Palladium:

"A copy of your paper was handed me in the fall of 1895 by a neighbor. Therein I read an account of how Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People had effected a cure in a case that was in many respects like my own. I had very little money with which to buy medicine, and I talked the matter over with my wofe. The results was that I purchased a box of Dr. Williams' Pink Pills, and before they were half gone I noticed a marked improvement in my physical condition. I have taken nine boxes in all, and can now walk three miles without exertion. Had I the means to continue taking the pills I am confident that in a very short time I would be as well as ever, because with the condition I have described I am troubled with kidney complaint, and these pills are the only medicine that has ever given me relief from that ailment, which troubles me still, though not as bad as formerly. I have the utmost confidence in Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People, appreciating fully what they have done for me affter all hope had been abandoned and I expected relief in death only. It is proper to state that my rheumatic pains have not troubled me since last winter."

I found a copy of the original Hunter testimonial from the Palladium in several other period newspapers, including The Evening Herald (Syracuse, NY, April 18, 1898), The Bath Independent (Bath, Maine, July 9, 1898), and even in the Brisbane Courier of Australia (July 1, 1897)!


Richard said...

Great stuff.

A few weeks ago, I found a similar ad in an old almanac. Here's a link to it. "Infallible" seems to be quite the description.

Gorges Smythe said...

That reminds me of the ads I see about "cleansing" medicines that make it look as if our bowels are lined with a tube of disgusting, semi-hard feces. It turns out that what is shown is actually a rope of sandwich wrap dipped in diarrhea.

B. Forbush said...

I absolutely love stuff like this, regardless of its hucksterism. Somehow, I connect it with those shell game operators who set up shop at every railroad stop when the trans-continental rr was built.

Any chance there was anything useful in those pills.

In my college days a psychology professor once told his class about a friend of Sigmund Freud who claimed he could cure any ailment through the nasal passages. Turns out he was administering cocaine to his patients ! At least for a little while after receiving treatment, it is reported they were feeling no pain - and their maladies had remarkably disappeared!

Jim Schmidt said...

Thanks everyone for the comments!

Brad - The 1905 formula of the pills was found to be (after removal of coating):

1) Exciccated ("dried up") sulphate of iron (0.75 grain)(1 grain = 65 milligrams)

2) anhydrous potassium carbonate (0.66 grain)

3) Magnesia (0.09 grain)

4) Sugar (0.2 grain)

The content changed over the years and was sold in the UK as late as the 1960s!
4) powdered licorice (1.4 grain)