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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
But Dr. Jayne could laugh, too. Mis darkbrown-tasting mixture in the green oval bottle built a $300,000 mansion with doors ol solid walnut and silver doorknobs and with his daughters’ laces sculptured on every mantel. When he died, it took a will of twenty-rive pages to disburse his three million dollars’ worth of assets.
Many fortuitous circumstances came together in the mid-nineteenth century to make it possible for a young shoemaker or bookbinder with a formula for a lung balsam or corn cure, an intuitive grasp of popular psychology, and an elastic conscience to make a fortune and leave behind a catchy-sounding trade name like Radway’s Ready Relief or Hostetter’s Celebrated Stomach Bitters, often good for a run of a hundred years. There was, first of all, a splendid propaganda opening provided by the airing of tedious quarrels between rival schools of regular medicine. Other factors favorable to the “patents were the rapid spread of literacy, cheap postage, improvements in printing and graphic reproduction, the extension of the national railroad network, and, oddly enough, the development of the religious press. And war. The wounds and diseases of the veterans who survived the Civil War introduced into the comnumity-at-large new mental patterns of fear and faith fear of ill health and regular doctors, a touching laith in Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People. Or Hosteller’s Bitters. The War Department bought this .stomachic in carload lots lor the Union armies. It remained a medical standby of the Grand Army of the Republic for decades and supported four generations of Hostellers in a state of affluence to which they easily accustomed themselves.
By the 1880’s self-made doctors, wandering Indians, and cleverly personalized corporations were catering; to every imaginable pathology or fantasy with lost-manhood tablets, bust developers, dyspepsia pills, abortifacients, and tuberculosis “cures.” They also produced treatments lor a class of diseases delicately associated with “youthful indiscretions. All employed the same propaçandistic devices: spreading skepticism ol the medical profession, overwhelming the patient with sympathy, parading the testimonials of those who honestly believed thev had been benefited, while subtly inducing by suggestion the frightening symptoms so graphically described on the label. The literature of the proprietaries threatened, scolded, and confused t hose who were sick or worried, hut en- tered always to their determination to make their own diagnosis of what ailed them.
A major theme was a condition known as female weakness. Under this vague phrase were gathered all the ills of the female physiology and psyche. The most gifted healer who worked this vein was Mrs. Lydia E Pinkham, who found her fortune and apotheosis in a herb medicine of her own concoction, Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. “Only a woman,” declared Lydia, “can understand a woman’s ills,” a characteristically pithy observation loaded with overtones of feminine rebellion and hostility to men.
Mrs. Pinkham, whom publicist Elbert Hubbard compared favorably with Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton, Julia Ward Howe, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Dorothea Dix, Joan of Arc, and other notables, is well worth meeting. Lydia Pinkham, née Estes, the daughter of a shoemaker, was born February 9, 1819, in Lynn, Massachusetts. In this “City of Shoes ” there also flourished other remarkable women, such as Susan B. Anthony, MaryBaker Eddy, and Mrs. Mary Sergeant Neal Clove, the water-cure physician and reformer, who introduced to Lynn the bloomer costume and brown-bread supper, hard beds, mesmerism, and free love. Educated locally, Lydia bubbled with the heady doctrines that were floating in the air of eastern Massachusetts like wild yeasts—Swedenborgianism, phrenology, temperance, Sylvester Graham’s vegetarian faith, women’s rights, spirtualism, botanic medicine, and hat money.
Married in 1843 to an ineffectual husband, Isaac Pinkham, Mrs. Pinkham had four sons, three of whom she survived, and a daughter. When Mr. Pinkham’s chief occupation proved to be losing money in real estate, Lydia, in desperately, put her hand to supporting the family. Like many New England housewives Mrs. Pinkham had prepared her own home remedies— fennel teas, rhubarb catharics, and the like. But the winner was her “vegetable” nostrum for the indispositions of the female reproductive apparatus. For years she had boiled and strained her sovereign remedy in the home kitchen and given it away as a gesture of neignborliness. But after the 1873 panic, with her family in actual want, Lydia turned professional. The Vegetable Compound made its commercial debut in 1875. Early in 1876 a label was registered in the Patent Office. Later the government found that the “sure eure contained 17.9 percent alcohol and 0.56 crains of vegetable extractive material to each 100 c.c., consisting of such squawmedicine therapeutic agents as Alestris (True Unicorn) and Asclepias (Pleurisy Root), which had disappeared from the United States Pharmacopoeia some forty years before. But even the harshest critics of the Vegetable Compound never claimed that it did its users any harm, though l hey insisted that it didn’t do any good, either.