Most of these medicines were at best
harmless (unless you might be using heavy
machinery). Many actually contained generous
quantities of alcohol, opium, or cocaine,
ensuring a quick feeling of well-being for
first-time customers, followed by the
possibility of habitual use. These medicines
were widely advertised in magazines,
newspapers, mail order catalogs,
storefronts, on fence posts, and even barn
roofs. These nostrums were pitched far and
wide, but no promotion could beat the hoopla
of a traveling medicine show. These shows
featured music, comedy, juggling, and
overblown rhetoric mixed with testimonials
and stunts to demonstrate cures. Admission
was free, with the performers making a
living from the sale of cure-alls and a few
assorted other items. The masters of
ceremonies would usually add the title of
"Doctor" or "Professor" to their names to
give themselves a recognizable sense of
There was Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root, Dr. Hercules Sanche’s Oxydonor Balm of Gilead, Mullen's Liniment, Rite Wate Fat Reducer compound that promised a safe way to a slender healthy figure, Trilene tablets for all fat people, Hamlin's Wizard Oil Pain Remedy, Simmon's Liver Regulator, Pink Pills for Pale People, and of course Dr. J. Millers vegetable expectorant ... invaluable for all lung troubles. Few of these "cures" actually healed and many didn’t contain promised ingredients, for example:
VITAL SPARKS - Which promised to revitalize masculine virility, It was nothing more than a concoction made by rolling rock candy in powdered aloe.
TIGER FAT - A cure-all balm reportedly made from Royal Bengal tiger backbone, was in reality concocted of Vaseline, camphor, menthol and other aromatic oils.
NERVINE - A purported nerve sedative, had alcohol as its main ingredient (and lots of it). It advertised a cure for nervousness, indigestion, irritability, seasickness and sleeplessness.
KA-TON-KA - A medicine purportedly made from Indian herbs by the Modoc and Nez Perce Indian tribes. In reality, it was made in Pennsylvania, and simply contained a modicum of alcohol, sugar, aloes and baking soda.
PROFESSOR AMCK's MIRACLE ELIXIR OF LIFE - A Medicine that could purportedly cure just about anything that might afflict you. In reality a concentrated black tea extract with herbs and tree bark extract. Since the bark was from the white willow variety the concoction contained naturally occurring salicylic acid which modern day aspirin owes it heritage. And the tannins in the black tea had several calming benefits for the stomach and even if applied topically. So, in comparison to the rest of the elixirs ... Professor Mack almost got it right. It also contained 12% distilled alcohol which explained its popularity and how people kept buying the elixir even though their maladies persisted. Produced until the Professor's disappearance in 1910.
By the early 1900s, suspicion was rising about the value of these nostrums and so called "Elixirs". And so the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was established in the 1920s to regulate the nation’s drug industry and Medicine Show became a thing of the past.br>
The golden age of Medicine Shows took advantage of a receptive, unsophisticated public who may have been awed by legitimate scientific discoveries of the time. People such as Thomas Edison, Alexander Bell and Madame Curie had stirred the public’s dreams for inventions that would make daily life easier. If you looked at the "medical journals" of the time you would be barraged with recommended cures for maladies that have all but vanished in this 20th century.