Front and center on the main counter in the Michigan State University Museum’s general store installation is an upright wood and glass display case containing patent medicines. (Today, we call these “over-the-counter” medicines.)
Patent medicines weren’t patented.
The term patent medicine is derived from the English monarch’s practice of issuing a royal warrant, or patent, to reserve manufacturing rights to the patent holder as the “true and first inventor” of a new product or process.
The patent system requires that patent applicants reveal, in the case of medicine, ingredients and formulas, and this no competitor in the lucrative proprietary medicine trade would do. Anyone could bottle the same mixture and not be sued for patent infringement, but anyone could be sued if they copied a competitor’s packaging design. It was much more lucrative to register a trademark which, unlike patents, did not expire. Advertising—and lots of it—persuaded Americans to dose themselves with vegetable compounds containing alcohol, cocaine, morphine, and opium.
The sale and use of patent medicines peaked in the 1880s and 1890s in the United States, abetted by industrialized production, national transportation routes, the increase in newspapers and magazines and the advertising these media sought to fund publication. Trade cards carried the news of these “cures” in general stores.
It has been fascinating to read the ingredient list and claims on the various bottles and containers of the patent medicines on display in the MSU Museum’s general store. Oftentimes, however, such lists were not included on boxes, bottles, and instruction sheets. Take, for example, Mrs. Winslow’s Syrup, a Stomach and Bowel Regulator for Infants and Children. Each bottle contained ¾ grain of morphine and a measure of alcohol—no wonder its makers, druggists Jeremiah Curtis and Benjamin A. Perkins of Bangor, Maine, claimed it could cure teething pain and other ills of infants! The Syrup also contained fennel, anise, caraway, and a simple sugar syrup.
Sources disagree on the date Mrs. Winslow’s Syrup was introduced: some say 1830, others say 1845. Like many patent medicines, the story of the Syrup’s origins gave the “medicine” an aura of reliable safety. Jeremiah Curtis’s mother-in-law, Mrs. Charlotte N. Winslow, supposedly created the “remedy” and used it successfully with the children she nursed.
By the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906, Mrs. Winslow’s Syrup and many other patent medicines were under attack by the medical profession and temperance advocates. In 1911, the American Medical Association denounced the Syrup. It was sold—without the alcohol and morphine—until 1930.
Food and medicine safety is a constant concern. Should it be part of this exhibition’s interpretation?
Bingham, A. Walker. The Snake-oil Syndrome: Patent Medicine Advertising. Hanover, MA:Christopher Publishing House, 1994.
Cook, James Graham. Remedies and Rackets: The Truth about Patent Medicines Today. New York: Arno Press, 1976.
Hagley Museum and Library. Patent Medicine. Accessed 12 June 2016.
Hechtlinger, Adelaide. The Great Patent Medicine Era; or, Without Benefit of Doctor. New York: Galahad Books, 1974.
Hiss, A. Emil. Thesaurus of Proprietary Preparations and Pharmaceutical Specialties: Including “Patent” Medicines, Proprietary Pharmaceuticals, Open-Formula Specialties, Synthetic Rremedies, etc. Chicago: G. P. Engelhard, 1898.
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Young, James Harvey. The Toadstool Millionaires: A Social History of Patent Medicines in America Before Federal Regulation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1961.