Hope in a Bottle

Hopkins collector recalls an era when patent medicines promised relief for every ailment - but didn't always deliver.

April 22, 2005|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

In a way, Dr. Michael S. Torbenson's trade card collection reveals as much about medicine as the tissue samples he studies for a living at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

One card hypes the healing power of Dr. Kilmer's Complete Female Remedy, said to purify the blood and tone the nerves. Another plugs the promise of Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, which "guaranteed" a baby in every bottle.

Still another promotes the relief in store for users of Lash's Bitters Tonic Laxative, blended to alleviate any ailment of the liver or kidneys.

Torbenson - who has collected more than 1,000 patent medicine cards over the past 10 years, many from eBay and other auctions - can't date them all with complete accuracy. Most were originally given away as advertising gimmicks.

But each tells its part of the story of the patent medicine era, when tens of thousands of companies across the country made exaggerated, often-outrageous claims about the capabilities of their nostrums. And people simply ate them up - in part because traditional medicine offered so little help.

When patent medicines began rising to mass popularity about the time of the Civil War, antibiotics hadn't been invented, and it wasn't unusual for a physician to perform an autopsy and then deliver a baby - without washing his hands in between.

For much of the 19th century, the treatments doctors prescribed for a wide range of illnesses centered on purging the body's "humors" through vomiting, diarrhea, sweating or, worse, bleeding.

"Traditional medicine, at that time, didn't have much to offer individuals who were sick," said Torbenson, a pathologist at Hopkins, where part of his card collection is temporarily on display. "There had been enormous advances in understanding human anatomy and different aspects of disease, but that hadn't led to many new therapies."

Another reason for rising patent medicine sales was good old-fashioned marketing. Between the early days of the republic and Abraham Lincoln's election, the number of newspapers grew twentyfold, providing a cheap mass advertising medium.

Meanwhile, advances in printing allowed patent medicine manufacturers to put attractive, colorful and often humorous advertisements directly into the hands of potential customers. Some consumers - or their children - even collected them.

"Marvelous Elixir of Life Discovered by Famous Doctor-Scientist That Cures Every Known Ailment," reads one such ad from around the turn of the 20th century. "The lame have thrown away crutches and walked about after two or three trials of the remedy. The sick ... have been restored to their families and friends in perfect health."

Not patented at all

"It was easy for people to enter this field," explained William H. Helfand, a consultant to the National Library of Medicine and co-curator of an exhibit on quackery in medicine currently at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "All you needed was a little money for advertising. It didn't matter what you put in this stuff."

Most patent medicines, it turns out, weren't patented at all. That would have required companies to reveal their products' ingredients.

Many contained high concentrations of alcohol - 20 percent or more. But aside from promising cures they couldn't necessarily deliver, they were usually harmless. Other products, however, contained ingredients most of us wouldn't want to put in our bodies, at least knowingly, including mercury, opiates and cocaine.

While he was a medical resident at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Torbenson analyzed the contents of an unopened bottle of Lash's Bitters that had been found in a basement.

The liquid was billed as an extract from the bark of the buckthorn tree, which contains two compounds that act as a laxative. But when Torbenson removed a sample from the bottle using a needle and syringe, he found neither. What he turned up instead was a potentially toxic level of lead.

In New Jersey, one of the larger patent medicine manufacturers was E.S. Wells, namesake of a Jersey City pharmacist who devised an entire line of products that promised to be "rough on" all kinds of problems: Rough on Pain, Rough on Corns, Rough on Coughs, Rough on Piles.

"It was sort of 19th-century alternative medicine," said Lois Densky-Wolff, head of special collections at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey.

Bromo Seltzer

Not all patent medicines were fraudulent. Baltimore's own Bromo Seltzer, made by the Emerson Drug Co., was (and, though hard to find, still is) a legitimate remedy for headaches and heartburn.

For years after it was built in 1911, the Bromo Seltzer Tower, still a downtown landmark, was topped with a 17-ton, 51-foot revolving replica of the trademark blue Bromo Seltzer bottle.

"A cool brain is often needed after a night with the boys," noted one Bromo advertisement, which pictured a man with a block of ice on his head. "Don't use ice ... Take Bromo Seltzer, the Brain Cooler. All Druggists keep it."

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