Prior to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, entrepreneurs could make any claim they wanted for their special medicines, herb tonics, electric belts, and hair restorers. Not only did these remedies usually not work, they sometimes caused more harm than good.
Many of these elixirs, remedies, and “vegetable restoratives” were heavily laced with alcohol, codeine, or opium. While the ads for patent medicines made all sort of promises, none was more fantastic than the promise of “satisfaction guaranteed.”
The makers of patent medicine might have actually believed in their product’s ability to cure, but they definitely believed in the power of advertising. Periodicals of the 19th century were filled with ads for patent medicines. The Post and of the 19th century seems to have avoided some of the more outrageous patent-medicine ads. Even so, we’ve found a few interesting examples.
Medical marijuana: A doctor cures his only child of tuberculosis with cannabis.
How many people jumped at the chance to lose “from two to five pounds per week”?
Dr. Case warned that catarrh (a buildup of phlegm or mucus) could lead to tuberculosis (then the leading cause of death in America) but could be remedied by breathing fumes of wood tar.
Florida Water was a cologne using orange scent. The fountain in the ad refers to the Fountain of Youth, which Ponce de Leon presumably found in Florida. Florida Water is still being sold (lanman-and-kemp.com) but without claims of health benefits.
Today, we might wonder how a painkiller could be “always perfectly safe in the hands of even the most inexperienced persons.”
This illustration appeared above a full-page ad for A.M. Richardson’s Wonderful Magneto-Galvanic Battery, which was claimed to revitalize and strengthen organs—without actually specifying which ones. The company recommended it for 56 different ailments, including meningitis, diabetes, heartburn, and “hysteria or fits.”
“Speedy relief and complete restoration of Health, Vigor and Manhood guaranteed.” How could anyone not be satisfied with a promise like that?
It’s only after you’ve read most of the ad for “Golden Medical Discovery” that you realize the grisly cartoon has nothing to do with the product.
Coming Soon from The Saturday Evening Post: Ads You’ll Never See Again
A special collector’s edition of The Saturday Evening Post filled with ads from the past that will delight, entertain — and sometimes shock — with images and concepts that are thoroughly inappropriate today. You’ll cringe when you see babies wrapped in then-brand-new cellophane. You’ll laugh out loud at Santa promoting a cigarette brand. You’ll wince at an ad that threatens housewives with a spanking for failing to complete their domestic chores. More than just an entertainment, the special issue offers a snapshot of attitudes about gender, childrearing, and marketing in an era that most readers will remember all too well.
It’s too early to order, but if you might be interested in purchasing this product, please click here and we’ll send you a notice when the special issue is available.