Snake Oil Almanacs: Patent Medicine Advertising in the 19th Century

This post was written by cataloger Catherine Falzone.

Dr. Miles new weather almanac and hand book of valuable information, 1906
Front cover of “Dr. Miles new weather almanac and hand book of valuable information, 1906.” Ind. 1906 .D76 E4.

The Patricia D. Klingenstein Library of the New-York Historical Society has a number of almanacs that were printed as advertisements by patent medicine companies.  Most people in the nineteenth century bought an almanac every year and considered them trustworthy sources of information.  Unscrupulous patent medicine manufacturers capitalized on that trust by folding their false claims into the familiar format of the almanac, leading people to associate their advertised products with something familiar and dependable.

Patent medicines, non-prescription concoctions that were neither legally patented nor clinically proven to cure disease, first appeared in the 1600s, but reached their height of popularity in nineteenth-century America.  At the time, medical treatment could be hard to come by, especially in rural areas where the doctor might live many miles from patients.  It could also be dangerous and frightening.  Many patients were understandably reluctant to undergo the era’s aggressive techniques like bloodletting or surgery, which was performed in unsanitary conditions without anesthesia.  Moffat’s United States almanac for the year 1844, an advertisement for Moffat’s Life Medicines, contains this incendiary passage:

Many a downright murder is committed and yet the murderer is shielded from punishment by his title of doctor, given him by the faculty. … Frequently there is more danger from the physician than from the distemper. … I asked a noted practitioner what was their general method of practice?  He told me their practice was uniform—bleeding, vomiting, blistering, purging, anodyne, etc. if illness continued, there was repetendi, and finally, murderandi (p. 2).

Moffat's United States almanac for the year 1844
Inside front cover and title page of “Moffat’s United States almanac for the year 1844.” N.Y. 1844 .M64 N9.

If people were generally suspicious of doctors and their methods, it made sense for them to turn to patent medicines, which promised the cure for every disease in one little bottle.  The trouble was that the ingredients and uses of these medicines weren’t regulated.  At best, patent medicines contained herbs that were neither helpful nor harmful.  At worst, they contained alcohol, opium, or poisons like mercury and turpentine.

Dr. D. Jayne's medical almanac and guide to health, 1885
Front cover of “Dr. D. Jayne’s medical almanac and guide to health, 1885.” Pa. 1885 .D73 P4.

Patent medicine manufacturers experimented with several new advertising techniques—free samples, billboards, and direct mail campaigns—but one of the most popular new methods was the free almanac.  C. C. Bristol and Dr. D. Jayne published the first patent medicine almanacs in 1843.  From then on, most medicine manufacturers printed almanacs that were available on pharmacy counters.  These publications started with the template of a standard almanac—a pamphlet of about 36 pages with a calendar, weather forecast, jokes, health advice, horoscopes, stories, and cartoons—and supplemented it with testimonials and prose about the company’s products.

McLean's family almanac 1870
Advertisement and calendar page from “McLean’s family almanac 1870.” Mo. 1870 .M35 S7.

Later, as color printing became cheaper, the almanacs began to feature eye-catching illustrations of children, cute animals, attractive women, or other subjects meant to appeal to the widest possible audience.

Other almanacs used Native American imagery to sell medicines.  The Kickapoo Medicine Company used the name of the Kickapoo tribe to sell their Kickapoo Indian Sagwa, Oil, Buffalo Salve, Worm Killer, and Cough Cure.

No one could accuse an Indian of over carefulness in eating.  He ate what Nature gave him. … Why can’t we live like the Indian, in a healthy, hearty, natural way?  Because we have such weak stomachs.  But how did the Indian possess such perfect, strong digestion?  By taking that medicine of his, Sagwa. … That Sagwa we have now employed him to make for us (Kickapoo Indian almanac 1893, p. 7).

Kickapoo Indian almanac 1893
Front cover of “Kickapoo Indian almanac 1893.” Conn. 1893 .K53 N4.

The Kickapoo Company employed a common stereotype of Native Americans as simple people who were close to nature in order to give their medicines (which were certainly not made by Native Americans) credibility.  They cleverly covered their tracks with this introduction:

We have called our remedies, “Indian.”  Now this is a dangerous word. … It is so liable to be abused.  If it is honest and true it is a glorious word.  But it has so often been assumed by quacks and charlatans to cover gross humbug and fraud that people are right in demanding that what they buy for “Indian” is truly so and not an imposition (Kickapoo Indian almanac 1893, p. 3).

Testimonials from supposedly satisfied customers were another common feature of these almanacs. (Click on the image below to see a page of testimonials from a very popular almanac, Dr. D. Jayne’s medical almanac and guide to health [1885].)  

Testimonials from Dr. D. Jayne's medical almanac and guide to health, 1885
Testimonials from “Dr. D. Jayne’s medical almanac and guide to health, 1885″ for Jayne’s Carminative Balsam. Pa. 1885 .D73 P4.

We have no way of knowing if any of these were written by real people.  Even if they were real, it’s unlikely that these medicines actually worked, given what we know today about their ingredients.  A more likely explanation is that an aura of trustworthiness can create a placebo effect.  Also, opium and alcohol have a way of making people forget their troubles.



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