Gold Rush Medicine: Swamp Root, Snake Oil and Other Questionable Potions, Pills and Powders
Potions, Powders and Pills, Oh My!
The westward movement in the United States of the mid-1800's was a dangerous adventure. Coincidentally, it happened at the same time that early mass marketing of patent medicines was beginning on the east coast.
Many pioneers, concerned about the challenges they would face on a long difficult journey, eagerly bought "magic" mixtures or brews with exotic names like snake oil or swamp root, hoping these products would help preserve their health.
Potions, powders and pills of the 19th Century changed the definition of of "medicine" from an artful skill, to a bottle of miracle cure. There are many infamous examples.
Pioneers traveling westward were leaving civilized society where they would have no access to a medical doctor, even one of dubious credentials. They craved some magical assurance that they could keep healthy by using various suspicious concoctions.
Certain medicines that claimed to be a remedy for anything from dandruff to cancer, and sometimes both, became very popular.
Dr. Andral S. Kilmer's Swamp Root
Kilmer's Swamp Root was a popular product. Perhaps because of its name, it appears to suggest something exotic, rare, mysterious, and not easily attainable.
According to a reference on Native American healing and herbal remedies, there is a plant called in Spanish, yerba del Manzo (herb of the swamp), whose scientific name is anemopis Californica, though it grows mostly in Arizona.
The root was used as an antiseptic and sometimes as a tea recommended for soothing ulcer pain. It is not known if this is the same "swamp root" referenced by Dr. Kilmer, but as in many cases, the ingredients of any particular patent medicine were sometimes not revealed at all.
The image of Dr. S. Andral Kilmer M.D. appeared on all packages, labels, books and promotions. The distribution of his products became so widespread that his face was more recognizable than that of the president of the USA in many parts of the country.
Swamp Root, in its many forms and variations was by far Dr. Kilmer's most famous product, however he also lent his face to the promotion of Dr. Kilmer's Ocean Weed Heart Remedy, Dr. Kilmer's Indian Cough Cure, Dr. Kilmer's Female Remedy, described as "The great Blood Purifier and System Regulator" as well as "The only Herbal Alterative and Depurative Ever Discovered, Specifically Adapted to female Constitutions....") and Dr.Kilmer's Prompt Parilla Liver Pills.
Kilmer's enterprises were so successful that he inspired imitators -- perhaps even counterfeiters, who produced products which cannot be found in any of the company's official advertising, such as: "Dr. Kilmer's Wild Indian Female Cancer Injection", and "Dr. Kilmer's Wild Indian Female Secret".
In 1882, after fire destroyed the original Kilmer factory, the new plant in Binghamton New York, was capable of filling over 2000 bottles an hour. The economic impact on the area was significant, since Swamp Root remained the primary product and the factory employed hundreds of people. It's label retained Kilmer's visage long after the Dr. had relinquished control of the company.
One of the more intriguingly named medications is "Pierce's Pleasant Purgative Pellets". Though charmingly alliterative, it could be a "kill or cure" remedy. These tiny white pills are described as "sugar coated concentrated root and herbal extract laxative grains."
They contained such components as "May Apple (podophyllin), Jalap, Aloin, and extracts of Nux Vomica and Stramonium in minute quantities," proving that mysterious and unpronounceable ingredients have been around for quite some time.
It is probably a good thing that these "pellets" are tiny because their ingredients are unquestionably questionable.
May Apple derivative is today used for wart removal. It is considered caustic and extremely toxic, not recommended for internal use.
Jalap and Aloin are purgative and cathartic resins from plant secretions and Stramonium comes from poisonous Jimsonweed.
Nux Vomica is the poisonous seed of an Asian tree of the genus strychnos. It was considered a stimulant to the gastro-intestinal tract and had the effect of raising the pulse and blood pressure. It was sometimes used as an antidote to cardiac failure.
The potent effects of this ingredient were well known; it's use required considerable discretion. According to the Miriam-Webster Medical dictionary it contains the alkaloids strychnine and brucine.
There may be some logic in the idea that a small dose of poison effectively relieves constipation, but the poetic name of this product makes it sound more gentle and agreeable than it probably was.
Paine's Celery Compound
Widely distributed and imitated, the very popular Paine's Celery Compound contained a list of ingredients almost as long as the list of ailments it was supposed to relieve.
The fact that information was printed in French and German as well as English reinforces the fact that it was widely used and distributed.
"A reliable medicine for general debility and diseases arising from a debilitated nervous system", its label proclaims. It also purports to be "a powerful alterative; a valuable remedy for Dyspepsia, Neuralgia, Rheumatism; also female complaints."
It further asserts that it will "act at the same time as a tonic reviving the energies and spirits, making it one of the best medicines in existence for aged people." As if this were not enough, "it strengthens the nerves, gives tone to the stomach, produces a healthy appetite, sound digestion, clear skin and a vigorous body."
At a price of 8 oz. for $1.00, it probably afforded as many promises per dollar as any popular cure.
This product was produced by Wells and Richardson Co. of Burlington Vermont. One sample contains the notation "pkg. adopted Jan 2, 1907", so we know that this particular formula dates from after that time. "No 2002 guaranteed under the Food and Drugs Act June 30, 1906," also appears on the label therefore a legally required disclosure of the ingredients is included on this product.
And what were those ingredients? As listed, they are: Celery seed, Calisia bark, Sagrada, Cascara, Senna leaves, Prickly Ash bark, Sarsaparilla root, Hops, Ginger root, Dandelion root, Mandrake root, Blackhaw, Chamomile flowers, Black Cohosh root, Yellow Dock root, Potassium nitrate (a strong oxidizing agent with diruretic effects), glycerin, sugar and water.
Many of these ingredients seem unfamiliar to us, yet a few are still seen in health food stores as herbal supplements and teas. Celery seed is listed first, (though at this time, ingredients were not necessarily listed in order of their predominance) and it was often considered to be a digestive aid.
Several of its ingredients -- Cascara, Senna, Sagrada and Ash bark among them -- are primarily laxatives. Black Cohosh had been traditionally used for centuries by Native American women to soothe menopausal hot flashes.
Another ingredient, mandrake root, was formerly supposed to have aphrodisiac properties and sometimes used as a narcotic. Dandelion root was often used in patent medicines. It was sometimes considered to be especially beneficial for liver ailments, simply because it's flower was the color of bile. If any medicine were made today with similar ingredients it would undoubtedly need a very long list of warnings about interactions and side effects.
Oh yes, one more ingredient is mentioned. Paine's Celery Compound "contains 19.85% percent of alcohol," making it nearly equivalent to a 40 proof after dinner liqueur. Recommended dosage for the compound was one Tablespoonful four times a day or about 2 fl. oz total.
Laws About Medication
In 1906 the original United States Food and Drugs Act was signed by president Theodore Roosevelt. It required patent medicines to list ingredients clearly and to drop the word "cure" from their promotions.
Some medicine manufacturers went out of business at this time, others merely listed the ingredients, as required, and continued to make outrageous claims for themselves with "special formulations" that often had a doctor's title attached.
Some changed the word "cure" to "remedy". Several still claimed they could provide speedy relief of "the most hopeless cases" of incurable diseases.
By 1918 Federal restrictions on drug dispensing was tightened by the Harrison Tax Act which also required druggists and physicians to keep meticulous records about their distribution. Still, many dangerous products, remained on the market .
In 1924 bans on all products which exceeded allowable limits for narcotics were enacted, but again, dangerous products remained on the market for several more years.
Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup
This was another enormously popular medication, often used to relieve the distress of teething infants. It was first produced in 1849 and continued to be sold for well over 60 years. It was packaged with information in at least six languages, indicating wide distribution.
Unfortunately, it is strongly believed that overuse of this product caused the death of several children, as it contained morphine. This was another of the products which was called into question when attempts were first made to regulate patent medicines. Mrs. Charlotte N. Winslow's formula was widely imitated by other companies.
A Winslow's label of the early 1900s was replete with typical of turn of the century graphics. It featured allegorical figures of goddess-like women in elegant draperies, a chubby cherub with fingers in his mouth, and baroque style borders around the ornate type styles.
The company apparently moved its main operation to Australia about this time, perhaps in response to the tightening restrictions in the U.S.
A contemporary product called Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup is still produced in Australia, though the formulation is now entirely different. It now has NO opiates, and lists its active ingredients as Chamomile, Catmint, Dill, and Fennel. All of these are considered to be mild stomach-soothing herbs.
Ayers Hair Vigor
James Cook Ayer began selling pills and potions in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1843. By the early 1870's he was a multimillionaire.
One of his most popular products, though not exactly promoted as a medication, was Ayer's Hair Vigor.This product first bottled in 1867 was later sold in a beautiful cobalt blue bottle with a glass stopper.
The accompanying literature, while not making direct claims of restoring hair or preventing grey, broadly hinted at these particular benefits while throwing in an occasional disclaimer.
Another interesting feature of the descriptive literature is that it not only names the ingredients, (required in 1906) it also gives a brief rundown of the "possible" benefits of each component, while encouraging the user to review the information with his own personal medical practitioner. The particulars are printed in English, French and Spanish.
By the time that "Hair Vigor" was being widely advertised, people had just begun to learn of the "germ theory of disease" established by Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch in 1870. Though the theory was not yet well accepted or understood, it seems that many medicine promoters were quick to use this new scientific discovery to promote their wares, by attributing almost any symptom to "germs".
For instance, Hair Vigor includes :
- Sulphur - -"destroys the dandruff germ and the germ which causes falling hair". (Though sulphur is sometimes used in dandruff medications today, it is not specified for the "falling hair germ".)
- Glycerin - "for soothing and healing and a positive and distinct food value aiding nature in producing abundant luxuriant hair - food to the hairbulbs - destroys germ life".
- Quinine - (Benefit not specified, but it was most often used to treat. Malaria)
- Sodium Chloride - "for cleansing and healing" (It's table salt.)
- Cantharides - "Arouses into full activity all the glands of the scalp." (Formerly used as a counter-irritant for skinblisters, a diuretic and and an aphrodisiac. It is now an illegal substance in most countries).
- Alcohol - "preservative and valuable antiseptic" (And in this case, not meant to be ingested.)
- Water. / Perfume -lavender, lemon and nerol."(Nerol has a rose scent.)
This product's promoters had an interesting way of proclaiming wonderful benefits to it's customers without making any actual promises. The informational insert says it:
"Makes hair grow because it increases circulation of blood in the scalp and directly nourishes hair bulbs. But it will not do impossible things. It will not work contrary to any law of nature. We wish we could honestly say that Ayer's Hair Vigor will grow hair on a bald head. But we cannot so state. No power in the world can make hair grow on an old thin shiny scalp. But if there is any life left in the hair bulbs it will stimulate them to do all they possibly can. Therefore we can only say that Ayer's Hair Vigor will sometimes, but not always, make hair grow on bald heads. The only way to know is to try."
Having covered the subject of balding, the pamphlet goes on to address graying hair . . . and if not improving the condition, it at least makes you feel a lot better about it, saying:
"While it prevents premature gray, it certainly will not prevent the gray and white hair which nature has declared should be a crown of beauty and dignity for ripe old age."
The Ayer's Co. had several other products including Cherry Pectoral, The Ague Cure, and Sarsaparilla which appeared around the mid 1800s. Like many such companies the Ayer's Co. promoted itself with almanacs that were filled with handy household hints for cooking and cleaning and profuse advertisements for its line of items.
Ayer claimed to be a graduate of Pennsylvania State University, but there is no record of him earning a degree from that institution. Somehow he seems to have gained membership in a number of prestigious groups, including The Society Of Arts And Sciences, Chemical Institute, the College of Pharmacology, and The U.S. Medical Association and The College Of Physicians And Surgeons in the 1860s.
By that time he had become a very wealthy man and even helped finance a railroad from Boston to his hometown of Lowell, Mass. He retired a multi-millionaire in the early 1870s and gave over management of his patent medicine empire to a Mr. A. G. Cook, who continued to build the fortune for many years to come. Ayer died in 1878 and his brother Frederick assumed control. His widow became very prominent in society and later spent most of the Ayer fortune in Europe.