In this era of remarkable medical and pharmaceutical innovation it is easy to take for granted the miracle that is the common medicine cabinet. With therapies for everything from toothache to bee sting readily available, we often forget that there was a time when the slightest twinge of sore throat or stomach-ache could be the initial symptom of a debilitating or even deadly illness. In fact, most of us have more potent medicines long forgotten and gathering dust in our night table drawer than were available to the richest land baron or powerful party boss of one-hundred years ago.
The absence of a reputable pharmaceutical industry in conjunction with the scarcity of entertainment options in the days before motion pictures and radio conspired to create demand for that unique piece of Americana, the Medicine Show. The “snake oil salesmen” organizing these traveling horse and wagon teams provided vaudeville-type entertainment acts, flea circuses, freak shows and other curiosities–all as ways of attracting crowds to which they would hawk their miracle cures and elixirs. With names like the Kickapoo Indian Show and Hamlin’s Wizard Oil, traveling medicine shows provided entertainment and promised relief for everything from dropsy to the vapours.
If your great-great grandpa lived in the Midwest or rural south of the United States in the mid to late 19th century, it’s likely he heard a pitchman’s spiel:
How much is your health worth, Ladies and Gentlemen? It’s priceless, isn’t it? Well, my friends, one half-dollar is all it takes to put you in the pink. That’s right, Ladies and Gents, for fifty pennies, Nature’s True Remedy will succeed where doctors have failed. Only Nature can heal and I have Nature right here in this little bottle. My secret formula, from God’s own laboratory, the Earth itself, will cure rheumatism, cancer, diabetes, baldness, bad breath, and curvature of the spine. –Ann Anderson, Snake Oil, Hustlers and Hambones
He may have even considered trying a remedy for his receding hairline or, sadly, held out hope that the potion in the little brown bottle with the cork stopper might actually provide a loved one relief from the ravages of cancer. Alas, in this era before modern science and government regulation the “cures” available were often nothing more than mixtures of flavoring elements such as sassafras and cloves and active ingredients such as cocaine or alcohol—providing perhaps some temporary relief to symptoms but no therapeutic benefit whatsoever.
It’s hard to imagine how different and often dire things were for our ancestors, even just a few generations ago. The average life expectancy in 1875 was 42 years of age and the premature death of children a heartbreaking and common occurrence. It was an era of bloodletting and leeches and before anesthesia or antibiotics. Is it any wonder that people put their hopes in shady characters making wild and unbelievable claims?
While the medicine show did little for public health, it was often the only form of entertainment available to rural populations. And as an entertainment format, it’s legacy can be traced through to the marketing and television approaches of today. It’s a fascinating thing about studying the lives of our ancestors. In some ways, such as medical care, our lives are unimaginably different. But in other ways, such as our seemingly human compulsion to be drawn to spectacle and willing to spend money on the outrageous claims of others, we’re quite the same.