Patent Medicine, 1860-1920

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North Star Lung and Throat Balsam advertisement. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library via Minnesota Digital Library.

The so-called golden age of patent medicines lasted from the mid-nineteenth century into the first two decades of the twentieth century. By modern standards, Americans during this period knew very little about human physiology, biochemistry, and endocrinology. They sought quick solutions for medical problems that they did not necessarily understand. Doctors, when available, were not always to be trusted. Hospitals, where available, were often considered places where people went to die. Patent medicines offered quick, convenient, and inexpensive relief from arthritis, depression, and mental illness, as well as women’s problems, indigestion, liver problems, and lack of hair growth. Children were dosed with medicines to aid their growth, feed their blood, and facilitate the movement of their digestive tract.  

A lack of government regulations enabled the sale of drugs that contained opium, laudanum, paregoric, alcohol, tar, and other ingredients consumers would not consider ingesting today. Increased government regulation brought about the end of the patent medicine era. In 1906 Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, with the strong support of President Theodore Roosevelt. Although patent medicines continued to be produced after that date, new, stricter regulations demanded that ingredients be printed on labels, false claims be toned down, and advertising be more truthful. The legacy of this era lives on in today’s television infomercials for “miracle cleaning products” and “fast weight loss solutions.”