Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Wright's Indian Vegetable Pills and the Civil War - Part II - Pills and Soldiers

This is the second of two parts on the patent medicine Wright's Indian Vegetable Pills and the Civil War (Part I is here).

In this part I offer photos of a late 1800s package of the pills (my collection), the Civil War era patent medicine revenue stamp, and my favorite part: some wartime soldier letters and other wartime literature mentioning the pills.

First - the medicine. The opened package in these photos is a late-1800s version of the medicine. I date it to the late 1800s due to the absence of a revenue stamp (which certainly places it after 1883, when the first revenue stamp act expired) but before the early 1900s when the company likely moved away from chipped wood ovals to oval tins as did other pill makers, such as Morse's Indian Root Pills (if anyone has more information on dating these pills, I'm happy to hear it!)

Second, I honestly don't know exactly what was in these things. The earliest advertisements from the 1840s (Wright's is one of the oldest and first truly American patent medicines) hint that it is from local plants and absent any mercury. It was meant to cleanse the bowels so almost certainly it contained some of the natural purgatives/laxatives such as senna, etc. Later publications such as Cramps' Nostrums and Quackery and Adams' Great American Fraud don't have anything on it's composition, but do mention that the Wright company was fined for making fraudulent claims. This is not surprising when you remember the first post which showed the great variety of ailments that the pills were purported to cure. (Again, if anyone has additional information on the composition of the pills, I'm happy to add it!)

The Wright's Indian Vegetable Pills firm also issued a Civil War patent medicine revenue stamp. According to the excellent medicine revenue stamp website (here) maintained by Bob Hohertz, supplies of the the stamp were made from 1863 to 1880. You can see some great examples of wrappers, almanacs, stamps, and other paper at his Wright's Indian Vegetable Pills page (here).

And, finally, my favorite part: specific mentions of Wright's Indian Vegetable Pills by soldiers during the Civil War and in other wartime literature!

In an October 1864 letter shown in Myron M. Miller's The Soul of a Soldier:The True Story of a Mounted Pioneer in the Civil War (Xlibris, 2011), Samuel K. Miller wrote his wife, Silence:

I want you to go to town and buy a box of Wright's Indian Vegetable pills and send them to me by mail. Just as soon as you receive this...

Likewise, at the website "Letters of William McCormick, Private, Company G, H, 16th OVI (Ohio Volunteer Infantry)," there is an 1862 letter written from McCormick to hos wife, Lottie, that reads:

"I want two boxes of Wright's Indian Vegetable Pills, a small bottle of Davis Pain Killer, Two cotton shirts and my summer vest. Letter paper and envelopes and if you have it, yours and the little ones likeness on one plate."

My favorite wartime story, though, comes from A Manual of Instructions for Enlisting and Discharging Soldiers (1864) which describes soldiers using the pills not to heal themselves but rather to purposely make themselves sick!

Diarrhoea, of all the diseases of the digestive system, is most frequently feigned. Men continue months in hospitals who profess to pass many liquid stools daily, without sensible diminution in weight or physical vigor. These are objects of just suspicion. To detect them, it is only necessary to require the use of the close stool. But a liquid stool is not conclusive evidence; for the discharge may be factitious. Two men were detected, not long since, in the General Hospital at Fort Schuyler, producing diarrhoea by means of "Wright's Indian Vegetable Pills." One had a box wrapped in his shirt on his person, and the other a box concealed in his bed.

I'll always be posting more on patent medicines and the Civil War so keep an eye on the blog!


Jay Willis said...

I have a letter written January 2, 1863 from camp near Falmouth, Virginia, following the Mud March from Pvt Edward R Willis, Sr., 8nd Reg. Pennsylvania Volunteers requesting his daughter Mary to send him a box of “right’s inden vegtble pills”, he encloses a dollar to cover costs and instructs her to remove them from the box, put in cotton waddling (so they don’t rattle around) and mail in a letter to him. He acknowledges receipt of the pills in his February 9, 1863 letter. Edward R Willis is my great great grandfather. I can be reached at and can provide a scan of the letter
Jay Willis

Pam said...

Hey! A friend of mine found this post on your blog as a result of something I posted on my blog! It's a postcard of New York, and on the back is an advertisement for Wright's Indian Vegetable Pill Company. I posted a picture of the front and back on my blog if you want to see it:

How Awesome is that?!

J.D. said...

It seems that Abraham Lincoln used Wright's Pills too.

Look at the entry for Sept. 10, 1859