Gold Rush Medicine: Swamp Root, Snake Oil and Other Questionable Potions, Pills and Powders

Updated on February 16, 2020
Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle's interest in California history was rekindled when she began leading tours at a local museum in an 1850s gold rush town.

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.

The most successful old patent medicines , such as "Swamp Root" claimed to cure multiple health problems.
The most successful old patent medicines , such as "Swamp Root" claimed to cure multiple health problems. | Source

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. Kilmer's face could be seen in many households on labels of patent medicines.
Dr. Kilmer's face could be seen in many households on labels of patent medicines. | Source

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.

Some old barns still show the old medicine advertisements. It was a good way to get your barn painted free of charge.
Some old barns still show the old medicine advertisements. It was a good way to get your barn painted free of charge. | Source

Pierce's Pills

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.

A very popular remedy of the 1800's.
A very popular remedy of the 1800's. | Source

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.


Soothing and, sometimes, deadly, this syrup was marked especially for children.
Soothing and, sometimes, deadly, this syrup was marked especially for children. | Source

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.

After government regulations took effect, the medical claims got a bit milder.
After government regulations took effect, the medical claims got a bit milder. | Source

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.

The Medicine Hustler( about 3 minutes in).


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    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      20 months ago from California Gold Country

      @c. Martiniz

      There is a renewed interest traditional medicines and especially essential oils and herbal remedies. I think there is too little research devoted to such medicines. Many of them may have had, and still may have healthful effects and genuine value.

      Unfortunately, there are many instances in which unscrupulous purveyors have introduced useless or even harmful products as a money making scheme.

    • profile image

      c. martinez 

      22 months ago

      FYI - Dr. Kilmer's was not quack or snake oil medicine. It was made of herbs and essential oils, look at the ingredients listed in their catalog or on the bottles. The reason it was in production for over 100 years is because it worked. It didn't have chemicals or addictive substances in it like big pharma pushes on everybody now, which kills people. What big pharma pushes on people is the real quackery and they have millions of people addicted, dying and dead from their poison every year. They didn't like the competition because Dr. Kilmer's worked, so they had the FDA put them out of business for saying it cures ailments, when it really did. For Example: If you take a 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda in water every day, you can prevent and cure cancer as it alkalizes your system and cancer can't grow in an alkalized system. But do you think big pharma wants anyone to know this? Of course not - too much $ to make from cancer treatments, even though it kills you to have chemo and radiation. They don't care, they got their $. No $ to be made from a .59 box of baking soda. Also, being organic vegan takes care of almost everything. I know about Kilmer's as I'm from Binghamton and my Great Uncle worked for Dr. Kilmer. There are testimonies from thousands of Dr.'s and people as to Dr. Kilmer's validity that it worked. They had an annual almanac that attested to this as well as gave valuable, helpful info on many levels.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      2 years ago from California Gold Country

      The celery compound was originally made with "German celery seed". Many other herbs as well as alcohol, sugar and glycerin were included in the recipe, making it essentially a 40 proof herbal laxative concoction which probably had positive results for many people.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      4 years ago from California Gold Country

      Yes, the variations in names can be confusing. The names of old medicines may have nothing to do with their actual ingredients or uses.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      5 years ago from California Gold Country

      Dr. J. Hostetter's Stomach Bitters was a popular, and high alcohol, remedy. Some of the early bottles-- 1850's or so may be valuable, depending on condition. I think you can find a lot of info by way of Google.

    • profile image

      Dorothy Yates Jackson 

      5 years ago

      Do not confuse celery seed from your spice cabinet with the vegetable celery which you get at the local produce store or market. Celery seed comes from a wild celery named smallage. Read more in other Googles.

    • profile image

      Dorothy Yates Jackson 

      5 years ago

      Anyone know anything about Dr. Huffstetter's Stomach Bitters? I have an old bottle with the name embossed into the glass on the side. May be spelling it wrong. Could be Hoffstetter's . It's on top of the furdown on my kitchen cabinet and I can no longer reach it.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      6 years ago from California Gold Country

      You are right! I think their first mistake was naming the medicines things like "Swamp Root" or "Snake Oil".

    • LaryssaGeorge profile image


      6 years ago from Indiana

      Loving this! Modern medicine had to start somewhere. ;)

    • TarrinLupo profile image

      Tarrin Lupo 

      6 years ago from Peterborough NH

      These are such great finds, thanks for the fun article.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      6 years ago from California Gold Country

      I'm glad you shared this, Lucille. As I mentioned, some of the old time "cures" may have had some beneficial effects.

      Herbal remedies, as we now know, probably provided some antioxidents and other nutrients that were not identified at the time.

    • profile image

      Lucille Apcar 

      6 years ago

      My grandmother, living in Japan was diagnosed with stomach cancer in her late 50s, and at that time cures were unavailable. A Japanese herb doctor prescribed a tea made from the root of a type of oak that grows in the country. The root was dried and shaved, then steeped in water to make a bitter brew. Surprisingly although it does not cure, it enables the patient to live a normal life providing the tea is taken daily. She died 20 years later of heart disease.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      6 years ago from California Gold Country

      I think they also poisoned people now and then. I don't remember seeing it, but I think I have seen excerpts. Yes, an old classic with a ring of truthful possibility.

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      6 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Rochelle, I have been thinking about this hub of yours since I read it and what keeps popping up in my mind was that movie with Cary Grant and those two darling elderly sisters (aunts) who had to take their daily 'tonic' and tea. I believe it made them a bit tipsy at times. "Arsenic and Old Lace" was the title of the movie.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      6 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thanks for reading Au fait and Nate. (Hey!) Most of them were scams, but a few of them might have actually been slightly helpful. Some of the herbal concoctions did, at least have some vitamins and minerals.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      6 years ago from California Gold Country

      Yes, but at least they cannot use the word "cure" anymore. We have to be wary of the synonyms.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      6 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thanks, Phyliss. Actually, though I think it was informational, I'm not sure about comprehensive. I did highlight some of the popular ones, but you wouldn't believe how many of these products there were back in those days, probably thousands.

    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 

      6 years ago from California, United States of America

      I find it fascinating how long scams have existed, and, now, of course, we get them in emails. It's even more fascinating to see these ones from the 19th century, before there were regulations on medicine. Of course, we still have some bad cures out there even yet. Very interesting material here, thanks.

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 

      6 years ago from North Texas

      Very interesting subject. Snake oil salesmen are still with us, they just use other methods of selling their cure-all products.

      Congratulations on Hub of the Day! Well done and deserved!

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 

      6 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Rochelle, this a very comprehensive and informational hub. Congratulations on the HOTD award -- it is well-deserved. I really enjoyed reading this.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image

      Sherry Hewins 

      6 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Wow! That's pretty cool that this wonderful 5-year-old hub is now Hub of the Day! I don't think I've ever seen that happen before. Congratulations, this hub is certainly deserving.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      6 years ago from California Gold Country

      That is an interesting question to ponder., Hady Chahine. It used to be against the law to advertise prescription drugs on TV in the USA. Now we hear them every day--- and the required warnings are so downplayed and monotone-- that we get used to hearing them, so they are easy to ignore. I wonder if the future generations wil be more enlightened about medicines, or more dependant.

    • Hady Chahine profile image

      Hady Chahine 

      6 years ago from Manhattan Beach

      Congrats on the HOTD! Very interesting read; makes me ponder what civilization in 100-200 years will say about things currently happening in today's society.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      6 years ago from California Gold Country

      I'm sure a lot of people were taken in by these claims. In those days, people who were traveling Westward were on very shaky ground--( not just the earthquakes)-- they had faith, personal skills and confidence, but there was NO healthcare, no insurance. If something promised a little extra assurance, many would be willing to buy a bit of 'hope'.

      Today people buy vitamins and supplements (that they may not need and might even be harmful)-- the companies that make them make multi-millions $.

    • m_westrope profile image

      Marianne Westrope 

      6 years ago from Central Ontario

      Makes you wonder how many people were taken in by the hype. Great hub. I was laughing and shaking my head for most of it.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      6 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Oh, gosh! Most of this was well before my time, but I've certainly heard of the old quack medicines and their sideshow tactics.

      When you stop to think of it, not a great deal has changed vis-a-vis advertising claims...they really push the envelope still.

      My mother's generation had "Lydia Pinkam's Pills" (for female complaints), and I remember my mother saying she'd been dosed with something called "Jamaicol," which I think was a rum-flavored castor oil preparation. To her dying day, she could not stand the taste of Jamaica rum because of this.

      Thanks for such a great article--it was most interesting, and well deserving of HOTD! Congratulations.

      Voted up and interesting.

    • WiccanSage profile image

      Mackenzie Sage Wright 

      6 years ago

      Great hub and contrats on winning hub of the day! This was a fun and interesting read-- I can't believe some of the things they used to try and sell people. It also got me thinking of Doc Terminus from Pete's Dragon, lol. Now I have to go watch that movie. Great work here, again congrats.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      6 years ago from California Gold Country

      It's true, Your Cousins. Prevention is always better than the cure-- especially better than those I've listed.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      6 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thank you, rebeccamealey. I saw a lot of examples of these products in a nearby museum, and doing the research was iinteresting.

    • Your Cousins profile image

      Your Cousins 

      6 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      Very interesting Hub of the Day. Just amazing though, how exercising and eating and living right will cure so many of the ills that we try to treat with "snake oils."

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 

      6 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      My goodness! Thanks for a modern FDA. This was really interesting. I didn't realize there were so many potions in the past. Thanks for putting this together for us, and congratulations!

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      7 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thank you for commenting, Peggy. If you find an old bottle with the word 'cure' on it, it is probably from before 1906. ... and the ingredients were rarely listed before the law required it. Yes, alcohol was widely used in the "medicines"-- but it was almost necessary for the sake of preservation. It killed off dangerous bacteria, mold & etc. I think some of the worst ingredients were the opium and morphine used in products that were marketed for infants.

      And you are right about some of today's 'natural' health products. At least we have a little better access to information about them now, even if the FDA doesn't oversee them.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      7 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Occasionally in stores and particularly those who collect and sell old collectables including antiques, one can occasionally find some of these old boxes and bottles claiming cures or remedies. Many of them had alcohol along with other questionable ingredients...if even listed. Those who spend lots of money in today's health food stores purchasing many of the modern so-called remedies for this and that are probably wasting money such as people did in the past. Of course there is always the placebo effect!

      This was fun to read and see all of those old photos. Up and interesting votes.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      7 years ago from California Gold Country

      The same thing occurred to me, wilderness. We are -- I mean, not you and I-- but 'we' are still gullible.

      And as I researched this, I realized that most of today's herbal remedies are not subject to the same laws as pharmaceutical products. Since homeopathic products, for instance, don't have biologically active ingredients, so there are no"active ingredients" that need to be listed.

    • wilderness profile image

      Dan Harmon 

      7 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      A very interesting, informative and well written hub. It makes me think of something else, though.

      Although we can smile and even laugh at the gullibility of our ancestors that would put out hard earned money for completely unproven "medicines", they believed in them.

      Just as we believe the "stuff" (to be polite about it) that comes from a politicians mouth, the claims from all the conspiracy theories and everything we see on the internet. We really aren't much better, although I can say I'm glad I didn't have to live when these quacks were all there was in the way of medicine.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      7 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thank you for reading and commenting, suziecat7. I found the information fascinating, too. So many of these products seemed to appear at the same time as the beginnings of mass marketing and advertising.

    • suziecat7 profile image


      7 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Loved this Hub. So much new information here for me. Thanks so much. Voted up!

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      8 years ago from California Gold Country

      Yes, Laudanum was pervasive and popular. I wrote this mostly based on examples I found in our local history museum. The list was very long... and most all of them had copycats or bigger and better, improved versions.

      Thanks for your comment. I found the subject fascinating, especially since we can still find similar examples.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      8 years ago from California Gold Country

      I'm glad, too. My traffic is awful. I have more "gold rush" themed hubs. Between the two of us we might cover the whole area.

    • Sherry Hewins profile image

      Sherry Hewins 

      8 years ago from Sierra Foothills, CA

      Oh, I hadn't seen this one before Rochelle. I'm so glad it showed up in my feed today.

    • Billrrrr profile image

      Bill Russo 

      8 years ago from Cape Cod

      Rochelle, I loved this. Very good read. Well researched and written.

      One of the most popular medicines of the era you write about, was Laudanum.

      It was a 'stand alone' medicine, as well as being a common ingredient in many of the patent medicines of the 1800s. It contains ten per cent opium and is an effective analgesic.

      Unlike the snake oils and alcohol compounds with the quaint names, Laudanum is still in use today: by prescription only.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      9 years ago from California Gold Country

      You are right, and It is still an inexact science though some progress has been made.

      It was a beginning which sometimes focused on relieving symptoms or pain, rather than correcting the cause. Sometimes it still is.

      I think the worst parts about it, both then and now, are the inflated advertising claims.

      I appreciate your comments.

    • jblais1122@aol profile image


      9 years ago from Kansas City, Missouri, USA

      I really enjoyed that. I've seen many patent medicine bottles and packages in curio stores and museums. Some just seem silly to us today, but, as you pointed out, medicine was an inexact science back in the day.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      9 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thank you, Jason. I'm glad you read and enjoyed it.

    • JasonPLittleton profile image


      9 years ago

      I love this hub. I enjoyed to read this one.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      10 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thanks, treasured...

      We have a lot of pristine bottles in our museum collection-- never buried ...some even have contents. Many came from the old general store stash that had been pushed to the back shelves and never sold. Lots of Paines Celery Compound.

    • Treasured Pasts profile image

      Treasured Pasts 

      10 years ago from Commerce, Texas

      What a great job of research for great historical information. While on the Louisville Historical Commission I worked with the Docent at our museum on identification of some bottles that came out of an old home dump. Most were junk but there were a few keepers that they were going to put in a display at the new library.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      10 years ago from California Gold Country

      These were hugely popular among pioneers heading West in America. Of course, it wasn't easy to find medical help then. People grabbed hold of whatever promises they could find and hoped for the best when medical problems came up.

    • RGraf profile image

      Rebecca Graf 

      11 years ago from Wisconsin

      Sold! I'll take 10 of each.

      It is so amazing how we can be drawn into quick and exotic cures.

      Another great piece.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      11 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thank you, pharmacist--

      High praise coming from such a source. I have more on the subject which I have considered making into a booklet to raise money for The Mariposa History Musem.

      I really appreciate your comments.

    • pharmacist profile image

      Jason Poquette 

      11 years ago from Whitinsville, MA

      That was a great hub. I wish I were still teaching as I would assign it to my pharmacy students to read! Those pictures were great too. I'd like to have them made into T-shirts! Anyway, thanks for your research and great information.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      11 years ago from California Gold Country

      Thank you ,Misha. I appreciate it.

    • Misha profile image


      11 years ago from DC Area

      I saw it earlier, just did not comment :)

      Excellent hub, re-read once more with pleasure :)

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      11 years ago from California Gold Country

      I volunteer as a docent and guide in a  California Gold Rush History museum that has many examples of these early medicines-- I wrote down the ingredients, and researched them.

      I have more information on several others-- which I found to be a very interesting subject, especially when compared to the claims of today's so-called natural herbal remedies. Some of them have value-- some do not, others are harmful.  The interesting comparison is that the old ones and the new 'natural ' ones make such interesting claims and may have no documentation or testing.

    • Benson Yeung profile image

      Benson Yeung 

      11 years ago from Hong Kong

      Where did you learn all these things? Simply brilliant.

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      11 years ago from California Gold Country

      The museum usually has only one docent at a time. The secretary us usually in the office doing secretary things. Yes, I have read all the labels. Some of the bottles still have their contents-- which must be really scary after a hundred years or so.

    • Glenn Frank profile image

      Glenn Frank 

      11 years ago from Southern California

      You must have perused all the old bottles in the local history museum to get all those ingrediants. Were the other Docents wondering when you were so interested in Snake Oil and Swamp Root?

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      11 years ago from California Gold Country

      The alcohol and morphine effect was also there. I have lots more on this subject, but tthought this would do for now.

    • Woody Marx profile image

      Woody Marx 

      11 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      Ah the good ol 'placebo effect'! .old time snake-oil salesmen understood it well. Fantastically detailed and encyclopedic hub! Nice work!

    • Rochelle Frank profile imageAUTHOR

      Rochelle Frank 

      11 years ago from California Gold Country

      The coca-- I believe, was what cocaine is derived from-- the formulation has since changed, but it was originally sold as a medicinal product

      . I have seen an early advertisment for Hires Root Beer which was originally sold as a "blood purifier" in concentrate form. For 25 cents you could make five gallons.

    • agvulpes profile image


      11 years ago from Australia

      Your mention of Quinine takes me back to my childhood .

      Whenever my siblings or myself (I am the last of 11 children) got a "cold" the only thing people seem to get then was a cold or pneumonia, my father gave us a good dose of (dont know if I'll get the spelling right)"Amoniated Tincture of Quinine" closely followed by a lemon slice.

      btw Is the story correct about "Coca Cola" started out a a medicine and contained cocaine.

      Very nostalgic Hub


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