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Before Regulation There Was Patent Medication

Apr 25, 2008
Long before medicines were controlled and regulated by a federal agency, the vast majority of people relied on patent medicines to try and sooth their ills. While many compounds and elixirs were used prior to the 1600's, it was then that royalty began issuing "patents" to the makers of potions they liked as a form of advertising.

The term "patent medicine" became a popular term to use when describing these mysterious potions whether they had real royal support or not. The primary focus of the makers and distributors of these potions was in the "brand name" used. While often priced expensively, the ingredients were seldom costly and were usually commonly available substances.

In America after the revolution, the name stuck and patent medicines were the first product to be heavily advertised. It was not until 1925 that a patent requirement was even developed. While the term "patent" was still used, very few were actually patented as that would have required listing the actual ingredients.

Sometimes these patent medicines actually contained an herbal remedy for some illnesses. The primary active ingredients were usually alcohol and various opiates including cocaine. Due to the nature of these drugs, patent medicines at least made the user feel better whether they were ever cured or not. The often-addictive nature of these patent medicines finally led to their legal banishment in 1936.

Besides addiction, some of the patent medicines were actually toxic. A common patent medicine to take care of "women's problems" was in fact an extract of pennyroyal and tansy, which was used to abort early pregnancy. One of the more high profile deaths contributed to patent medicine was the steel manufacturer Eben Byers. A supporter of a form of irradiated water, the tonic contained the radioactive element radium. In unsuccessfully attempting to heal himself from bone cancer with this "healthy" water he ultimately died from radium poisoning.

Many patent medicines grew in popularity and usage during the American Prohibition movement. Patent medicines were exempt from the ban on alcohol so tonics such as "Peruna", which had an eighteen percent/thirty two proof dose, was a prohibition era favorite as it at least cured sobriety.

It came as something of a shock to the government when, in 1917, they seized and tested Clark Stanley's extremely popular "Snake Oil Liniment" and found that it contained mineral oil, one percent fatty oils, camphor, turpentine and red pepper. Not only was it safe, it was actually a formula that performed as advertised, although not made from crushed snakes. It was very similar to the camphor and capsaicin liniments still found on the market today.

Patent medicines were very good at advertising themselves as a cure for just about any ailment known to man. They were, however, usually ineffective medicinally. A few did prove to be either surprisingly useful or at least not harmful and some of these old brands still carry on in certain over the counter treatments. Just a few of the survivors include Luden's Cough Drops, Vicks VapoRub and Phillips' Milk of Magnesia.

Other herbal "medicines" have found new life as hair shampoos. The old advertising lessons are still in effect, telling of the benefits of fruit and herbal essences on your hair while usually only being an effective perfume. Some old patent medicines have become even more popular in another form. Once Coca-Cola took the cocaine out of their tonic, rather than go out of business, they became one of the biggest soft drink companies on the planet.
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