While hunting through the pages of the 1898 Peterborough Examiner recently, I was struck by the sheer number of ads for patent medicines. In those un-regulated days, of course, one could pretty much attempt to foist any old concoction on the general public, and truth in advertising was a fairly fluid thing. In any case, and just to get an idea of what sorts of things were being advertised, I made a list of all of the patent medicine ads that I could find for one particular day.
Here, then, is the list for the October 28th, 1898, edition of the Examiner. Why that date? Simply because that was the edition I was looking at when I got the idea! I have included interesting bits of the advertising text for each medicine, along with a few of my own notes here and there:
Ajax Tablets – “POSITIVELY CURE ALL Nervous Diseases – Failing Memory, Impotency, Sleeplessness, etc., caused by Abuse or other Excesses and Indiscretions. They quickly and surely restore Lost Vitality in old or young, and fit a man for study, business or marriage. Prevent Insanity and Consumption if taken in time.”
A mysterious substance referred to only as “B. B. B.” – “…prompt relief in such diseases as arise from disorders of the stomach, liver, blood and bowels…”
“B. B. B.” was possibly Burdock Blood Bitters – “…purifies the blood and removes pimples and all kinds of eruptions, leaving the skin clear and smooth.” The two medications are probably the same thing, as Blood Bitters was a well-known indigestion medicine in addition to its apparent role in clearing up one’s skin.
Carter’s Little Liver Pills (see illustration above) – “They also relieve Distress from Dyspepsia, Indigestion and Too Hearty Eating. A perfect remedy for Dizziness, Nausea, Drowsiness, Bad Taste in the Mouth, Coated Tongue, Pain in the Side, TORPID LIVER. They Regulate the Bowels. Purely Vegetable. Small Pill. Small Dose. Small Price.” A very well-known medicine, one that actually has a wikipedia entry.
Cook’s Cotton Root Compound – “Is successfully used monthly by over 10,000 Ladies.” Cotton root is an abortifacient, but one assumes that Cook’s is being advertised here as relief for the symptoms of PMS.
Dr. Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral Plaster – “Placed over the chest it is a powerful aid to Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral in the treatment of all throat and lung infections. Placed over the stomach, it stops nausea and vomiting; over the bowels, it controls cramps and colic. Placed over the small of the back, it removes all congestion of the kidneys and greatly strengthens weakness.” I’m not sure about the plaster, but the pectoral itself apparently contained an opium derivative, as was fairly common then.
Dr. Caton’s Tansy Pills – “A safe, easy, and positive ladies relief.” Another abortifacient, and this one may actually be subtly advertising the fact.
Dr. Chase’s Kidney-Liver Pills – “‘Am subject to very painful conditions of costiveness and other troubles resulting therefrom, but I am glad to say that I have found a perfect remedy…’ M. McCartney, Lombard Street Fire Hall, Toronto.” Also advertised as “the only Combined Kidney and Liver Pill.”
Dr. Fowler’s Extract of Wild Strawberry – “…a wonderful cure for diarrhœa, pains in the stomach, etc.” There may be something to this one – Fowler’s is still available today!
Dr. Low’s Worm Syrup – “…the best medicine to expel worms. Children like it — worms don’t.”
Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets – “…CURE constipation and its attendant evils.” Dr. R.V. Pierce was a giant of the patent medicine industry whose concoctions were available up until relatively recently.
Dr. Wood’s Norway Pine Syrup – “‘I had a severe cold which settled on my lungs and made me so weak I had to give up work. Two bottles of Dr. Wood’s Norway Pine Syrup completely cured me.’ J.H. Danthwright, Gowland, Mt., N.B.” In addition to pine-related ingredients, Dr. Wood’s Syrup contained chloroform.
Fletcher’s Castoria – “Children Cry for Castoria.” A very famous children’s laxative, and a very famous advertising slogan that was in use until World War Two. One of the ads for Castoria in that day’s Examiner further noted that “The facsimile signature of Charles H. Fletcher is on every wrapper.” Still available, although now known as “Fletcher’s Laxative for Kids.”
Hagyard’s Pectoral Balsam – “Coughs and Colds are always promptly cured…” Also advertised in that day’s Examiner was Hagyard’s Yellow Oil (“Nothing takes out pain and inflammation, reduces swelling, promotes healing like Hagyard’s Yellow Oil”).
Hood’s Sarsaparilla – “Life insurance is a good thing but health insurance, by keeping the blood pure with Hood’s Sarsaparilla, is still better.” Laboratory tests have indicated that Hood’s was 20% alcohol, so if you took enough of it you wouldn’t care whether it kept your blood pure or not!
Hoffman’s Headache Powders – “ALL HEADACHES from whatever cause cured in half an hour.”
Indapo (the Great Hindoo Remedy) – This one needs its own illustration:
Sometimes, a moustache is not just a moustache.
Ko-Da (The Great Mexican Blood Tonic) – “If you have Dyspepsia, Sick Headache, Liver, Kidney, Constipation or any disease of the blood, try KO-DA.” Ko-da also made pain medication (“The Mexican King of Pain”) and a cough remedy.
Laxa-Liver Pills – “Can cure your dyspepsia–restore your stomach to a normal state, so that it will do its work, digesting food, without you knowing it.”
Laxative Bromo-Quinine Tablets – “To Cure a Cold in One Day.” These were the world’s first cold tablets.
Madill’s Pulmonic Cough Syrup – “A guaranteed remedy for Coughs, Colds, Sore Throat, Bronchitis and other Diseases of the Throat and Lungs.”
Milburn’s Heart and Nerve Pills – “‘Milburn’s Heart and Nerve Pills have regulated my heart, toned my nerves and built up my health.’ Mrs. Selina E. Core, Amhurst, N.S.” Also in the same newspaper: Milburn’s Rheumatic Pills (“No need for any one to suffer from rheumatism, sciatica Neuralgia, lumbago or gout…”).
Mrs. G. Vinette’s Hair Preparation – “Cures Baldness, Grey Hair, Irritation of Scalp, Eczena [sic], Removes Dandruff, Restores Grey Hair to Natural Color, Stops Falling Out, &c. Guarantee in all cases. References if required.” This is a local patent medicine — Mrs. G. Vinette apparently lived on Reid Street. Her medicine was also sold by at least one hairdresser in Ottawa.
Putnam’s Painless Corn Extractor – “It makes no sore spots in the flesh, and consequently is painless.”
Scott’s Emulsion – “Twill fill out your sunken eyes, hollow cheeks, and thin hands. Why not have a plump figure?” Another one that is still available, this is simply cod liver oil.
Swayne’s Ointment – “Cures tetter, eczema, itch, all eruptions on the face, hands, nose, etc., leaving the skin clear, white and healthy.”
Wood’s Phosphodine (The Great English Remedy) – “…guaranteed to cure all forms of Sexual Weakness, all effects of abuse of excess, Mental Worry, Excessive use of Tobacco, opium or stimulants.” Henbane was the active ingredient in this one (link is a PDF).
I have saved the best for last. The Examiner for that day contained two large advertisements for Dodd’s Kidney Pills, and they are frankly terrifying. Whoever wrote the copy for them was having a bit of field day, working up fake news stories — a common advertising tactic of the time, and still used today — with lurid descriptions of what could happen if one did not take the advertised medicine (it is worth noting that Dodd’s was known for somewhat exaggerated marketing in the late-19th century). One ad began thusly:
On another page, under the pseudo-headline “Human Sacrifices, On the Altar of Diabetes, Saved by Dodd’s Kidney Pills, Only”, the ad-man went on as follows:
May I say, “yeesh.”
It is easy to laugh at these old patent remedies, and the sometimes strident manner in which they were marketed to the public. Some of them, like Indapo, no doubt deserve it. However, the Peterborough Examiner for October 28th, 1898, included a couple of health-related items that are no laughing matter at all. The paper reported that a Miss Simmons, of Deseronto, was noted to be ill upon disembarking from a steamship at Cobourg after crossing Lake Ontario from Charlotte, New York. What she had was smallpox. A certain Dr. Bryce took over that case, and it must have made for a busy few days for him. He was also at that time dealing with an outbreak of typhoid in and around Cobourg, with two people already dead and another twenty infected.