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Promising Miracles, Delivering Deception
A collection of trade cards evokes the era of patent medicine

Michael Torbenson’s collection reflects an era of American medicine.
Friends, are you suffering from biliousness, dyspepsia, malaria, chills, fever, rheumatism, nervous or sick headache, constipation or any diseases arising from a disordered condition of the kidneys and liver?

Well, friends, Lash’s Kidney and Liver Bitters is a sure cure for habitual constipation and a recommended remedy without an equal for all those other afflictions.

A “sure cure” prior to the Pure Food and Drugs Act of 1906, that is. After President Theodore Roosevelt signed that law, and a 1913 amendment strengthened it, the colorful trade cards that advertised Lash’s Bitters stopped promoting it as a cure. Instead, the cards only praised the alcohol-laden concoction as a laxative and, ironically, a hangover preventive. (“It turns a bad night into a good morning.”)

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, patent medicine trade cards were ubiquitous handouts on street corners and in grocery stores, pharmacies and barrooms. The cards have long fascinated pathologist Michael Torbenson, who has a collection of more than 1,000. Now some of his beautifully printed lithographic advertisements are exhibited on the first floor Pathology hallway.

Torbenson, who considered a career in archaeology before becoming a physician, became interested in patent medicines when he was collecting old bottles. Fascinated by the claims and contents on the labels, he was drawn to the products’ trade cards. He says they reflect far more than simply the patent medicine-makers’ skill at promoting what a Boston editorial writer in the 1920s called “Sweet Extract of Hokum.” In the cards can be read a significant chapter in the history of American medicine. They reveal developments in printing and marketing as well as the dawn of federal regulation of commerce and health care.

Typically, what was actually patented were the trademarks and designs on the labels and the bottle shapes—not the medicines themselves. That would have required revealing the contents, and the key ingredient usually was alcohol, often enhanced by opiates. Torbenson discovered this firsthand when he acquired an unopened bottle of Lash’s Bitters, circa 1918. He inserted a 23 gauge needle into the cork stopper and used a 10 ml syringe to obtain a sample for analysis. Although Lash’s Bitters claimed it contained a known purgative (extract of the bark of the buckthorn tree, Rhamnus purshiana), the sample Torbenson analyzed didn’t. It was nearly 20 percent alcohol and had a dangerously heavy concentration of lead.

The heyday of patent medicine hype stretched from about 1860 to 1930. During the Civil War, the military provided patent medicines to soldiers, as conventional medications were scarce—and probably not much more effective. Returning veterans continued using the products. As the population boomed with immigration and expanded west, access to traditional medical care increasingly was limited. Many did not have the money to see a physician, Torbenson notes. Instead, they would simply go to a drugstore where there were many rows of medications and buy one that seemed to fit their symptoms.

Less than 1 percent of the original patent medicines are still available, Torbenson says. Among them is Bromo Seltzer, once manufactured in the city that was home to more than 500 patent medicine companies: Baltimore. Some products originally promoted for medicinal properties, such as Hires Root Beer, which does indeed contain root and herb extracts, now are sold just as soft drinks. Coca-Cola, first formulated with a touch of cocaine, was touted as a “brain tonic.”

Advances in medicine, exposés of patent medicine chicanery, and the advent of radio and slick magazine ads spelled the end of the trade card era. What now commonly are called alternative remedies remain with us. “I don’t think they ever truly went away,” Torbenson says of patent medicines. “If you listen to AM radio early in the morning, you’ll hear advertisements for alternative remedies that in many cases are the lineal descendants of these patent medicines. The federal legislation eliminated many of the known toxic substances in some of these products and made them a lot safer.”

Among cards in the exhibit is one for Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, declared good for a host of women’s complaints and a fertility aid. “A Baby in Every Bottle,” some ads proclaimed. After the federal crackdown on patent medicines, one wit wrote: “There’s a baby in every bottle,/ So the old quotation ran./ But the Federal Trade Commission/ Still insists you’ll need a man.”

—Neil A. Grauer



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