Quack Cures and Self-Remedies: Patent Medicine

Quack Cures and Self-Remedies: Patent Medicine


Prescribed for mental and physical exhaustion, as well as "dyspepsia" (today more commonly known as heartburn or indigestion). Courtesy of Boston Public Library via Digital Commonwealth.  

In This Exhibition

Throughout the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, Americans were inundated with myriad medicinal treatments collectively known as patent medicine. At a time when doctors and medical clinics were less common, especially in rural areas, patent medicines promised relief from pain and chronic conditions when few other options existed. The term “patent medicine” referred to ingredients that had been granted a government patent; but ironically many purveyors of patent medicine did not register their concoctions with the government. As a result, many competitors offered similar formulas and freely imitated each other’s products.

The story of patent medicine is multi-layered. It is about the phenomenon of Americans self-medicating with opiates, alcohol, and herbal supplements, as well as women’s health and healthcare options. It follows the evolution of advertising in America and the rise of chromolithography printing techniques and newspaper advertisements. Finally, patent medicine reveals dubious scientific knowledge during a time when germ theory was in its infancy.

Credit: This exhibition was created as part of the DPLA’s Public Library Partnerships Project by collaborators from Minnesota Digital Library. Exhibition organized by Greta Bahnemann.