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Sweet Extract Of Hokum
Patent medicines were usually neither patented nor medicinal, which is not to say they didn’t (and don’t) have any effect
June 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 4
If you can identify the period when gentlemen wore genuine ormolu lobs attached to their watches and the butcher threw in a slice of liver for the eat when he wrapped up the meat order, then you are close to establishing the date of the Golden Age of Secret Remedies. No family circle was complete without the brown or green bottle on sideboard or shell. Sometimes the contents were murky, mysterious, evil in taste and smell. Sometimes they looked like whiskey, smelled like whiskey, and lasted like whiskey, for the best of reasons: they were whiskey. The presence of generous amounts of ethyl alcohol was necessary, according to a familiar explanation, lor the “preservation” of the medicinal ingredients. Two tablespoonfuls, taken before a meal, produced an agreeable sense of well-being or levitation, thai walking-on-air feeling often associated with a dollop of the Good Creature.
This was the period call it t lie early 1900’s when beards signified age and wisdom, the learned professions. So the home panaceas usually portrayed on their labels the luxurious whiskers of the doctor-proprietor. His license was of obscure origin. But there wasn’t anything obscure about his ownership of the name of his cure-all or his indignant fulminations against designing men who plotted to steal his customers with a similar article. Their claims were fraudulent because his medicine was patented.
The idea of proprietary medicines being patented is a stubborn bit of American folklore, accepted for generations as gospel truth and even repeated recently as a serious definition by the distinguished American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language in these words: “ patent medicine . A drug or other medical preparation that is protected by a patent and can lie bought without a prescription.”
A few patent applications were made, it is true, in the very early days of the United States Patent Office, when the law was first drawn and the examiners were not discriminating. Between 1793 and 1836, especially, papers were filed by rustic applicants who did not understand their grave error in revealing, as they were required to do, the ingredients they used. Disclosure of the formula was the last thing an experienced promoter had in mind, since his concoction would be immediately recognized either as harmful or as an innocuous granny remedy like sarsaparilla syrup mixed with oil of wintergreen flavoring. If a patent was applied for and granted, a new difficulty then arose. The formula would by law become public property in seventeen years- a sure way of going out of business and losing all the good will built up by years of gaudy advertising.
What the owners of nost rums (literal meaning: “our own”) were really interested in was not the contents of the bottle, which were subject to change without notice and were of very minor consequence, but the legal protection of the trademark. This was achieved by patenting the unique shape of the bottle and by copyrighting the design of the label and the printed matter wrapped around the package. Before the copyright law existed, the trade name eould be defended under eommon law. After it became registerable (but not patentable) in the Patent Office, the name became a property whose ownership didn’t lapse after a mere seventeen years but could be monopolized for all eternity.
The contents of the bottle changed with changing circumstances. For example, when the United States Treasury- ruled that Peruna, a little gold mine owned by genial Dr. Samuel B. Hartman, of Columbus, Ohio, must have a detectable medicinal effect or face taxation as a straight alcoholic beverage, the doctor, a former Bible salesman, complied by dumping generous amounts of blackthorn bark, a powerful cathartic, into the Peruna retorts. There followed a national rumbling of the bowels that was heard from Maine to California, but especially in those states where citizens preferred taking their spiritus frumentu under an alias. They could feel secure in the knowledge, gained from advertisements in their church papers, that the nostrum was recommended by “An Indefatigable and Life-long Worker in the Temperance Cause.”
When our century was young, nearly every drug, notions, or general merchandise store had a special patentmedicine department, arranged alongside the horse and poultry remedies. This was not incongruous because many of the medicines were, like Dr. Bennetf s Golden Liniment, “for horses … equally as efficacious as upon the human family.” One honest druggist, George “Pop” Stansfield, of Topeka, Kansas, received national attention when he displayed a large sign in his store that announced: “Wc sell patent medicines but do not recommend them.” Another skeptic, also from Kansas, was L. W. Howc, the sage of Atchison, who took notice of Dr. David Jaync, the Philadelphia tapeworm king, in a characteristic paragraph in his Atchison Globe: “Every time we see big, fat George Shitllett, we can’t help laughing over the fact that when he isn’t feeling well, his wife makes him lake Jayne’s Vermifuge, a worm medicine for children.”