As part of my ongoing research for my second Western novel, due out next year, I've been delving into the murky depths of medicine in the Wild West (and society in general during that period). It's fascinating stuff, and rather repellent as well - the germ theory of disease was as yet not widely accepted, and disinfectants, antiseptics and basic medical hygiene were only just getting started.
Here's an extract from a very interesting book on the subject: 'Medicine in the Old West: A History, 1850-1900' by Jeremy Agnew. This excerpt examines the use of patent medicines, which were widespread.
Alcohol, opium, and cocaine were common ingredients in patent medicines. Both Kendall's Balsam and Old Sachem Bitters contained opium and alcohol. Wyeth's New Enteritis Pills and Soothing Syrup contained morphine. As might be imagined, the effects of these drugs made them popular among users. To offset any concerns among the consuming public, manufacturers claimed with great aplomb that such ingredients were "not harmful," "non-addictive," and "natural remedies," when drinking potions that contained opium and cocaine were anything but harmless and non-addictive. Jaynes Carminative, for example, contained 23 percent alcohol and about a grain of opium in a fluid ounce. The normal recommended dose of laudanum to treat dysentery was six milligrams. One grain was equivalent to sixty milligrams of opium, so Jayne's Carminative contained ten times the usual medically-recommended dose.
Dr. King's New Discovery for Consumption, claiming itself to be "the only sure cure for consumption in the world," contained morphine and chloroform. The chloroform stopped the coughing, and the morphine put the user into a drug-induced haze. In the meantime, the tuberculosis raged unchecked, and the victim felt no need for further treatment as he was not coughing and felt relatively good. Pepsin Anodyne claimed to be "absolutely harmless," and it "contains no laudanum." That was true; however, in the fine print, the carton admitted that it contained chloral hydrate and morphine. A fine distinction indeed.
. . .
Patent medicines also commonly contained a high percentage of alcohol. Twenty-five percent of Burdock Blood Bitters was alcohol. Hinkley's Bone Liniment contained 47 percent alcohol, much reduced from its original 1856 version of 86 percent alcohol by volume.
Other examples were Baker's Stomach Bitters and Limerick's Liniment, which also claimed to be good for diseases in horses. Livestock was apparently the recipient of several of these strange alcoholic brews. Southern Liniment claimed to be good for rheumatism, neuralgia, sprains, burns, bruises, and colic. To appeal to rural customers, it also claimed to be "the only certain remedy for blind staggers in horses."
In 1878 the Internal Revenue Service, noting that Hostetter's Celebrated Stomach Bitters was being sold in saloons in Sitka, Alaska, as an alcoholic beverage, were of the decided opinion that the drink should be taxed as liquor. Hostetter's Bitters, promoted as being good for the treatment of dyspepsia, ague, dysentery, colic, and nervous prostration, contained between 44 and 47 percent alcohol before it was later reduced by the Pure Food and Drug Act to 25 percent.
. . .
Many patent medicines proclaimed themselves to be a "female remedy"; thus, women who swore that a drop of liquor would never pass their lips could happily take a spoonful or two a day of an alcohol-laced patent medicine and still believe that they never touched strong drink. A clue to the contents of many of these "medicines," however, should have been obvious, because the name "bitters" was used as a generic term for medicinal alcohol with herbs dissolved in it. Other tonics that were high in alcohol were Faith Whitcomb's Nerve Bitters (20 percent), Burdoch Blood Bitters (25 percent), Flint's Quaker Bitters (23 percent), the hypocritically-named Luther's Temperance Bitters (17 percent), and Dr. Walker's Temperance Bitters. It was so popular that it was literally sold by the case (author's collection).
Peruna, one of the most prominent patent remedies in the country, contained 28 percent alcohol. The Peruna prescription was to drink three wine glasses of the medicine in a forty-five minute period, a remedy that should have caused even the most dyspeptic individuals to feel quite mellow. By comparison, most wines today contain 12 percent alcohol.
. . .
From their beginnings, patent medicines often retained the nineteenth century focus of frontier medicine on the bowels. One early remedy, named Aqua anti torminales, was touted as a cure for "the Griping of the Guts, and the Wind Cholick; but preventeth that woeful Distemper of the Dry Belly Ach."
Many patent medicines were laxatives or purgatives in disguise, consisting of such old standbys as aloes, jalap, rhubarb, colocynth, and senna, just the same as conventional medicines of the time. Because these ingredients were based on plant extracts, the medicines were promoted as "natural," "Nature's remedy," "pure vegetable remedy," and other similar soothing, glowing terms. Proprietary medicines equated purgatives with purifying the blood - the old Immoral theory reincarnated - thus, many patent medicines trumpeted that they would remove impurities from the blood. In reality, their primary effect was to remove the contents of the bowels.
One such patent medicine was Brandreth's Vegetable Universal Pills. Benjamin Brandreth's advertising, still focusing on the idea of purging from ancient heroic medicine, claimed that impurities of the blood were the cause of all diseases. Even as late as the 1880s, company advertising claimed that people who were ill carried "corrupt humors" in their bowels and blood, but that these could be "expelled" - so to speak - by sufficient use of the company's pills. The medicine contained in Brandreth's Vegetable Universal Pills was compounded from aloes, colocynth, and gamboge. This was indeed a combination that was guaranteed to expel everything. One customer proudly claimed that her husband fed the pills as a preventative to his horses, oxen, cats, dogs, and pigs, with the same wonderful results.
. . .
One of the most famous patent medicines was Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, which was advertised as the "only positive cure and legitimate remedy for the peculiar weaknesses and ailments of women." It was developed by housewife Mrs. Lydia Pinkham of Lynn, Massachusetts, who started selling her home herbal remedy in 1873. In 1875 her tonic sold for a dollar a bottle. She claimed that it contained purely vegetable ingredients, derived from various roots. This tonic at one time contained 21 percent alcohol, which was used, so the company claimed, "as a solvent and preservative." Another ingredient was a large proportion of opium. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound was specifically recommended for pneumonia, kidney disease, constipation, tuberculosis, appendicitis, "the recurrent problems of women," and "female complaints and weaknesses." It even claimed to cure infertility.
In a stroke of marketing genius, the Pinkham family put Lydia's picture on the label, making her the most recognized woman in America at that time.
(Click the image for a larger view)
Her grandmotherly look and kindly smile appealed to readers of Pinkham's advertising and users of the medicine, and gave them confidence in its curative abilities. Shrewd marketing using this promotion resulted in a huge volume of sales, and by 1881, the Pinkham Company was grossing $30,000 a month. Other clever marketing techniques were heavy advertising in newspapers and a personal reply from Mrs. Pinkham to those who wrote to her for advice. Her advice continued, supplied by a team of company writers, until the early 1900s, even after she died in 1883. The company published a popular booklet called Guide for Women that was aimed specifically at female users and described the benefits of the medicine for them. It contained a quite frank discussion, for the times, of female physiology and the disorders that women were subject to. When first published, the guide had four pages. It turned out to be immensely popular and by 1901 had grown to sixty-two pages.
There's much more at the link.
It's an excellent book, going into a lot of detail and explaining many aspects of Western life that otherwise, on the surface, appeared strange. Among its interesting tidbits of information is that:
In 1800 the average life expectancy for a man was thirty-four-and-a-half years, for a woman, thirty-six-and-a-half years. In 1860 it was forty-one years for men and forty-three years for women. By 1900 this had risen to forty-eight years for men and fifty-one years for women.
Not very long lifespans at all . . . meaning that relatively few people died of old age, compared to illness, injury or violence. I highly recommend the book to those interested in the subject.
How can one close an article like this without remembering the classic ode to Mrs. Pinkham?