Selling the Cure: Images of Health and Disease in Early American Patent Medicine Advertisements
Michael Torbenson, M.D., Norman Barker, M.S., R.B.P
Patent medicines were extensively used in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and played an important role in the history of medicine. Patent medicine manufacturers used images to communicate notions of health and disease in their advertisements and these images demonstrate several recurrent motifs: slaying the beast of disease; the use of Native American knowledge of plants and herbs; the sick patient motif; literal illustrations of medicinal effect; gender appeals; and utilization of new scientific wonders. Each motif conveyed ideas on health and disease to the public and their examination provides insight into this important time in the history of medicine.
Patent medicines played an important role in the history of medicine in the United States. Patent medicines are also referred to as quack medicines, nostrums, or proprietary medicines. The composition of the medicines was almost never patented, but instead the precise ingredients and formulations were generally kept secret. In contrast, traditional medicines were compounded by apothecaries from standard and published recipes.
Motifs in Advertising Patent Medicines
In the 1800s and early 1900s, western medicine was undergoing an important transition in understanding the etiology of disease. Prior to this time, the Galenic notions that disease resulted from an imbalance in the body’s internal humors heavily influenced much of medical thought. However, during this time Galenic ideas on health and disease were gradually eroded by newer understandings that external factors such as sanitary and environmental conditions could cause disease. The discovery by scientists of microorganisms or “germs” accelerated the growing understanding that many diseases were caused by agents outside of the body (Duffy 1990). For example, Louis Pasteur established that germs (bacteria and other microorganisms) caused diseases, including common diseases that were familiar to all people. On May 3, 1880, he presented to the French Academy of Sciences a paper entitled “Extension Of The Germ Theory To The Etiology Of Certain Common Diseases” (Pasteur 1880).
Doctrine of Signatures
The “Doctrine of Signatures” was an important element of medical thinking in early colonial days (Young 1961). It held that God had placed the cures for diseases in the very land in which the disease occurred. Thus, the fevers and diarrheas of the new world were best treated with remedies from the new land and Native Americans’ knowledge of herbs and plants was highly regarded in preparing useful remedies. Many patent medicine manufactures exploited this in marketing and specifically linked their remedies to Native Americans, usually fraudulently. The fraud occurred on two levels, as the reported origins from Native Americans were generally untrue, as were the claims to cure various diseases. In this example, the trade card advertises Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills (Figure 5). Also, note the continuing imagery of an individual slaying a beast.
Literal Illustrations of Medicine Effect
During most of the 1800’s, the prevailing medical explanation for disease was based on the notion that each person had four humors (blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm) and disease was caused by an imbalance in these humors. Treatment was designed to restore humors and relied heavily on bleeding, blistering, causing vomiting, and causing diarrhea. These treatments were often painful and lasted over many days. Often, the treatments were literally worse than the disease. George Washington, for example, is felt to have been helped to an untimely grave by excessive bleeding (Duffy 1993). Patent medicines manufacturers rejected these harsh treatments and their medicines promised to cure without having to resort to such heroic methods. Many patent medicines were either mild stimulants or laxatives and the consumer would quickly feel the medicine “working”. You don’t have to understand German to understand the therapeutic effect offered by Friedrichshaller Bitterwasser (Figure 6).
The Sick Patient Motif
The sick patient motif powerfully conveys the image of sickness and healing. This motif had many variations, from prostrate individuals whose near death was avoided by taking the medicine, to images of a patient being treated by a doctor, to images of a patient surrounded by caring family (Figure 7). In another interesting variation of this theme (Figure 8), the medicine was shown between the sick individual and the health (and healthy) care provider—visually and symbolically bridged the distance from illness to health. Images that showed the sick patient before and after treatment were also very effective and combined both the sick patient motif and the use of direct illustrations of medicinal effect, discussed in the preceding section (Figure 9).
Appeal to Gender
Overall, there is limited information on the proportion of patent medicine manufacturers that were women. In one of the few studies to address this question, women were found to comprise 7% of patent medicine manufactures in Baltimore, Maryland (Torbenson and Erlen 2007). Many, though not all, woman-owned companies emphasized that their product was uniquely designed by and for women. Of these, the Lydia Pinkham Company is probably the best-known example. She advertised her product as a woman’s medicine with slogans such as “only a woman can understand a woman’s problems”. She encouraged women to write in for medical advice and usually recommended Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound along with exercise, good diet, and cleanliness. Her medicine was also recommended for infertility with the advertising promise of “a baby in every bottle” (Figure 10).
Incorporation of New Scientific Advances
Rapid advances in scientific knowledge took place during the heyday of patent medicines, many of which had relevance to medicine. Of these scientific advances, advertisers of patent medicines commonly used the exciting discoveries of electricity and magnetism. The basis of the galvanic shield (Figure 12), and many similar patent medicine devices, relied on using two metals to create a small electrical current. The principle was first described in 1780 by Luigi Galvani who reported that he could cause the leg of a frog to move by stimulating the nerve with a device made with strips of two different metals. How it worked was unknown to Galvani, but he called it “animal electricity”. This discovery and subsequent ones by Alessandro Volta laid the groundwork for the eventual development of batteries of the sort we still use today.
In conclusion, images on trade cards were effectively used to communicate to consumers key understandings about health and disease. The motif of slaying a monster or beast showed consumers that disease could originate outside the body and thus could be directly intercepted by medicines. Images of Native Americans emphasized the importance of regional herbs in curing regional diseases. Other images literally showed the effect of the medicines, particularly advertisements for laxatives, while other motifs showed directly or symbolically the medicine healing the sick person. Advertising at times touted the nostrums as specifically designed for women (and sometimes by women). Rapid advances in the sciences and medicine were quickly adopted by patent medicine producers and used to sell their wares. In sum, these image motifs were effective in communicating to consumers and contributed significantly to the success of patent medicines. In fact, a careful perusal of some of today’s magazines will show that descendents of these motifs have survived to our times.
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7. Duffy J., 1990. The Sanitarians: A History of American Public Health, University of Illinois Press
8. Pasteur L., 1880. Extension of the Germ Theory to the Etiology of Certain Common Diseases, Comptes rendus de l'Academie des Sciences xc:1033-1044
9. Duffy J. 1993. From Humors to Medical Science: A History of American Medicine, University of Illinois Press
Michael Torbenson is an associate professor of Pathology and specializes in hepatic and gastrointestinal pathology. His laboratory work focuses on viral hepatitis and hepatocellular carcinoma. He has a long-standing interest in the history of medicine and has published several articles on the patent medicine industry. He has an extensive collection of trade cards and has used them as the basis for his research in the history of medicine. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Norm Barker is an associate professor of Pathology and Art as Applied to Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University, School of Medicine. He specializes in photomicroscopy and macro photography. He is a fellow of the Biocommunications Association and his work appears in textbooks, journals and museums worldwide. His work is in the permanent collections of more than thirty museums including The Smithsonian, The George Eastman House, The American Museum of Natural History and The Science Museum in London. He has just co-authored a new book entitled Seaweeds: Wonders of the Ocean Realm and the exhibit will open at The Charleston Museum in November and runs thru April 2007. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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Table of Contents for VOLUME 33, NUMBER 3