By Jill Elaine Hughes
Special to the Tribune
May 5, 2013
Almost everywhere you look, you're bombarded with advertisements shilling products that promise "energy," "pep" and "vigor" — all with little to no side effects. You can buy the products at any convenience or grocery store or by mail order. With the harried pace and stress of everyday life (and the resulting ailments they bring), the products find plenty of customers in search of that extra edge to get them through the day. Meanwhile, some consumers are getting sick or even dying, and some Chicago politicians want them banned.
Sound familiar? No, this isn't about the popular, highly caffeinated energy drinks — Ald. Edward Burke, 14th, recently called for a citywide ban on large-size cans of such beverages — but rather the infamous patent medicines whose advertisements filled the pages of the Tribune and other newspapers nationwide more than a century ago.
Whether they sold them as remedies, cures, nostrums, elixirs, compounds, salves, tonics, bitters, syrups, cordials, panaceas, preparations or pills, patent medicine purveyors bet on the fact there were masses of gullible, desperate and plain stupid people in the world.
The products ranged from the original formulation of Coca-Cola, which was sometimes marketed as a patent medicine, to a plethora of remedies that are unknown today.
Take Scotch Oats Essence, a "proprietary tonic" described in a April 20, 1888, Tribune editorial headlined "Patent Medicine Frauds." Advertised as a "tired brain and tired nerve recuperator" — who doesn't need that? — the tonic was revealed in an investigation to be nearly 40 percent alcohol and include enough morphine to make it highly addictive and dangerous to both adults and children.
"The sale of the nostrum cannot be stopped too quickly," said Dr. Cyrus Edson of the New York Board of Health, with the Tribune going on to call for a swift ban on such "medicines," arguing that "their sale should be prohibited and the owners should be punished." Similar products went by names like Celerina and "catarrh snuffs" — both usually contained cocaine.
But the warnings of Edson and his contemporaries about patent medicines often fell on deaf ears. Then as today, there were plenty of businesses looking to profit from peoples' stress, strain and personal insecurities. Quacks claiming to offer quick fixes for common ailments that had yet to find effective medical cures peddled their wares wherever they could. And if the pages of yesteryear's Tribune are any example, there was a sucker born every minute.
"Poor, weak, human nature does so love to be hum-bugged," proclaimed the a secondary headline of the Tribune article titled "Concerning Quacks," published Nov. 22, 1885. "If (patient) testimonials are to be believed, sarsaparilla has cured millions, the Golden Medical Discovery tons of millions, and Lydia Pinkham has not stopped short of a billion."
"The faith of mankind in patent medicines has been carefully educated," said a Tribune article published June 14, 1874. The piece went on to detail the newspaper industry's participation in promoting the remedies through ad sales, noting, "Then the newspapers must be brought in. Standing notices are ordered at so much a line, from a cent in Calumet to a dollar in Chicago, and 10 cents in religious publications."
And those ads worked — even if the remedies they promoted didn't. That same article described a man who walked into a druggist's shop to buy a bottle of Plantation Bitters for his wife. When asked why he made the purchase, he replied, "I'm opposed to these quack-remedies myself. ... But these Plantation Bitters have been so extensively advertised that there must be something in them."
Small wonder Edson and his colleagues were not amused. But the ban he called for in the 1880s never materialized, and public discussion was still much the same by the early 1900s. Indeed, Dr. Charles Spencer Williamson, chair of clinical medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, risked slander suits from industry representatives in the crowd but delivered a "sharp attack" against such tonics at a public library talk on March 10, 1906. "The patent medicine industry is the most gigantic swindle ever perpetrated on the American public," he declared. He singled out Copp's Babies' Friend — intended to ease colic and teething — as a "horrible remedy composed of morphine and sweetened water." He called for a complete ban and said "nerve builders are particularly dangerous because they contain drugs that give temporary relief by depressing the heart" — language that was echoed in recent American Academy of Pediatrics warnings about energy drinks.
While the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which prohibited interstate commerce of mislabeled and adulterated foods and medicines, curbed some of the most dangerous patent medicines, the Tribune reported on May 11, 1912, that the proposed Richardson Amendment to the act would ban several hundred more popular "remedies," especially those containing cocaine and opiates. But that bill also failed to pass (in favor of a weaker Sherley Amendment that dealt just with proper labeling), making drugs like Death To Pain and Acker's English Remedy still widely available until the creation of the Food and Drug Administration in 1930. It wasn't until a legally marketed tonic called Elixir of Sulfanilamide led to the deaths of 107 people nationwide in 1937 that the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 finally closed most of the remaining legal loopholes.
Even so, as long as the public's appetite for magic in a bottle remains insatiable, questionable food supplements, diet pills, herbal remedies and energy drinks will remain big business.
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