Traveling Medicine Shows Of The Old West

CULTURE | January 1, 2019

Traveling Medicine Wagon. Source: (pinterest.com)

Traveling Medicine Shows were really popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. A Medicine Show was a traveling group that held performances and entertainment to lure people in, then gave a sales pitch for their ‘miracle cures’ and elixirs. This practice was the beginning of the patent medicine industry.  Before the government regulated the medical industry, these medicines were not necessarily patented but rather trademarked. Many of these tonics originated in England and began to be exported to America in the 1800s.

Traveling Medicine Show Wagon set-up. Source: (pinterest.com)

Traveling Medicine Shows offered a "Cure For What Ails You"

Traveling Medicine Shows is where we see the real beginnings of marketing campaigns. The person in charge, i.e. the ‘doctor,’ would send people to the next town to garner excitement for the show, put up posters and banners, and get folks excited to see the wonders that would be shown. Sometimes the shows had so many entertainers that an actual hall would be needed, but usually, the show would be held right on the street in order to attract the largest crowd possible. In between the entertainment, the ‘Doctor' would make a sales pitch about his miracle cures. One of the most popular attractions was the ‘muscle man’ who would show his strength and claim it was from one of the potions. People were typically planted in the crowd and would step up to give (fictitious) testimonials about the medicines. Some of these people would appear to have an ailment that the elixir would manifest a miraculous recovery.

Stage set-up for a Medicine Show. Source: (pinterest.com)

What, exactly, was in the tonics and potions peddled at the traveling medicine shows?

While these medicines were very popular, there was no regulation of the ingredients. Most of these elixirs contained morphine, cocaine and large doses of alcohol; some containing over 30%. These potions were advertised for babies and children as well, which sometimes ended with horrible results. Snake oil was another ingredient that claimed to be a cure-all. The phrase, ‘Snake Oil Salesman”'was derived from the Traveling Medicine Show!

Advertisement for Toothache Drops containing cocaine. Source: (pharmacytechs.net)

Cocaine drops were billed as a toothache cure but were later used to develop Coca-Cola.

Some of the pharmaceutical companies that we know today started with dubious beginnings. Bayer patented aspirin, but also sold heroin as a cough remedy! Many pharmacists created their own remedies and sold them under their name. Coca-Cola was originally being developed for medicinal use, but the creating pharmacist realized it would be more successful as a recreational drink. The original recipe called for the use of the coca plant, which is also used to make cocaine. That is actually how Coca-Cola got its name.

Bayer advertisement from 1901. Source: (pinterest.com)

Whatever became of the Traveling Medicine Shows?

As more and more people began questioning the claims of these tonics, Medicine Shows were increasingly less successful. Because of some horrible side effects from some of these ‘medicines’ and even deaths, the government began taking notice. Eventually, the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906 and led to the eventual creation of the Food and Drug Administration. Traveling Medicine Shows may have gone by the wayside, but their legacy lives on. The marketing strategies and sales pitches used back then are still very effective and used in advertising today.

Tags: 1800s, traveling medicine shows, 1900s, miracle cures, elixirs, Snake Oil Salesman

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