A Look Back at Old-Time Medicines
Antique medicines contained everything from arsenic to opium -- and promised instant cures.
Good for All That Ails You
Some patent medicines simply took a scattershot approach. In 1862, Mixer's
Cancer and Scrofula Syrup
claimed to treat "Cancer, Tumors, Erysipelas, Abscesses, Ulcers,
Fever Sores, Goiter, Catarrh, Salt Rheum, Scald Head, Piles, Rheumatism, and
ALL BLOOD DISEASES." [sic]
Others favored open-ended labeling. Cerralgine Food of the Brain boasted of
being "a safe cure for Headache, Neuralgia, Nervousness, Insomnia,
Hucksters didn't just limit themselves to elixirs and pills. They also
invented a dizzying array of devices, such as electric insoles and magic shoes,
to cure sore feet and crippling conditions.
Consider, too, the Health Jolting Chair of the 1880s. It resembled a
garden-variety armchair--only rigged with springs and levers. Its advertising
promised that the chair would give "efficient exercise to the essentially
important nutritive organs of the body."
According to the manufacturer, all that jiggling and jolting was essential
for "millions of human beings who may be living sedentary lives through
choice or necessity." The chair was, "For certain classes of invalids a
veritable Treasure-Trove." [sic]
End of an Era
The golden age of patent medicines ended in the early 1900s, notes the FDA
web site, when muckraking journalists wrote exposÃ©s and the federal government
cracked down with new legislation to prohibit adulteration or misbranding of
foods and drugs, as well as false advertising.
Also, as the state of legitimate medicine evolved, new cures replaced the
old. When doctors began treating syphilis with penicillin, a grateful generation
was spared the toxic effects of arsenic and mercury, including inflammation of
the gums, destruction of the teeth and jaws, and organ damage.
Opium and other addictive drugs also fell by the wayside once scientists
realized their pitfalls. Novocain replaced its predecessor, cocaine, as an
No doubt, more medical advances on the horizon will make some of today's
medicines outdated. So perhaps it's wise to avoid smugness.
After all, will sophisticated new cancer treatments make
today's harsh chemotherapy agents look like the arsenic and mercury of the
past? "I'm sure people will wonder why we put up with it," Whorton
Will future generations be aghast that that we pumped people's foreheads
full of Botox? "I think it's pretty strange now," Whorton adds. "I
don't think we have to wait."
And in the year 2250, will folks be chortling over our antiquated Internet,
purveyor of fad diets, bust developers, male enhancers, and overnight baldness