Posted tagged ‘patent medicines’

Health for a Shilling

November 21, 2012

Medications that are now used with great caution, if at all, were common place in the Victorian age. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, described as an indispensable aid to quiet crying or teething babies, had morphine as a major ingredient. Opium, regarded as an all-purpose drug, was widely used to control coughing and diarrhea. One company sold heroin tablets to relieve asthma symptoms. Cocaine was used in drops for toothache, one company promoted cocaine throat lozenges as “indispensable for singers, teachers and orators”, and dentists and surgeons used it as an anesthetic.

While these were legitimate drugs in medical practices of the late 1800s, a whole range of patent medicines also flourished during that period. People bought them from traveling medicine shows, and they were advertised in newspapers and magazines. The golden age of patent medicines ended in the early 1900s, when new legislation prohibited the misbranding of foods and drugs, as well as false advertising. Also, as legitimate medicine evolved, new cures replaced the old. Opium and other addictive drugs fell by the wayside once scientists realized their pitfalls, and novocain replaced its predecessor, cocaine, as an anesthetic.

Advertisements from the British Colonist of October 7, 1862, the day RCH opened, included ones for Holloway’s Pills, Brown’s Bronchial Troches, Dr. Jayne’s Sanative Pills, and Dr. J. Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters, standard remedies that most New Westminster families would have had on their shelves.

Ads for Dr. Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters were often targeted specifically to local conditions. During the Civil War, they were sold to soldiers as “a positive protective against the fatal maladies of the Southern swamps, and the poisonous tendency of the impure rivers and bayous.” In BC, the ad described the medicine as “a preventive of various dangerous diseases to which the gold seeker is liable”. The original formula was about 47% alcohol – 94 Proof! The amount of alcohol was so high that it was served in Alaskan saloons by the glass. Hostetter sweetened the alcohol with sugar to which he added a few aromatic oils (anise, coriander, etc.) and vegetable bitters (cinchona, gentian, etc.) to give it a medicinal flavour.

Ad for Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters

Dr. Jayne’s Sanative Pills, on the other hand, would speedily remove “bilious affections”, and were “invaluable to the miner as they may be taken without necessitating a discontinuance from work, even though the latter should be in the winter”.

Ad for Dr. Jayne’s Sanative Pills

Feeling a little hoarse? Brown’s Bronchial Troches were just the thing. The ad quoted a clergyman from Morristown Ohio, “Last spring I feared my lungs were becoming dangerously involved, and until I used your Troches could not preach a sermon of ordinary length without hoarseness, but now, with the assistance of the Troches, I have in the past five weeks preached some forty sermons.”

Ad for Brown’s Bronchial Troches

But the most popular patent medicine of that time was Holloway’s pills. Under the title, “Health for a Shilling”, their ad claimed that they would cure an astonishing number of diseases and conditions from coughs, colds and asthma, to dysentery, gout, tumours and “weakness from whatever cause”. Analysis of the pills showed that they contained aloe, myrrh and saffron, which while probably not harmful, would be unlikely to have the claimed effect.

Holloways Ointment and Pills


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