If you’re like us and enjoy wasting time on the internet, you’re probably well aware of patent medicines. According to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, patent medicines were first produced as special remedies in England in the late 17th century, with “letters patent” granted by the royal crown to give monopolies to the manufacturers. In time, people started using the phrase “patent medicines” to refer to any old over-the-counter drug. American colonists, inspired by British druggists, began peddling their own patent medicines, and the cure-all, instant-fix craze reached its peak from about 1850 to 1900.
Many patent medicines are easy targets for humor thanks to dangerous ingredients like heroin and morphine. Things changed a bit after the U.S. government cracked down with the Food and Drugs Act in 1906, and you started seeing products like this baby medicine with a label touting the fact that it “contains no opiates.” Suddenly, relative safety became a selling point. And, in fact, the use of harmful ingredients early on had created a whole new market for more patent medicines that purported to cure people of the addictions they’d developed.
For the most part, however, this list is not about those kinds of patent medicines. It’s about the ones with the most bizarre names and backstories we could find – the ones you don’t hear much about.
10. Uncle Ben Jo’s Bell Tongue Syrup
Let’s dive right in with a concoction that sounds and looks kind of like it was dreamed up by a crazy man deep in the sticks of South America. It sounds and looks like that because it was. Uncle Ben Jo, whoever he was, hit the market in the 1870s with a wondrous potion called Bell Tongue Syrup, which he reportedly derived from the Andean bell-tongue plant, whatever that was.
Bell Tongue Syrup, as prepared by our fearless bald and bearded hero, could cure most anything affecting a human in the 19th century. From the bottle’s label we learn that flatulency, brain diseases, tumors, and even epilepsy could all be positively reversed with no more than a half teaspoon taken thrice daily. Just for good measure, the label threw in “general debility” to make sure every ailment under the sun was covered.
For several years, issues of the American Agriculturist featured the rants of editors who’d been bombarded with reader letters about quack medicines and were sick of it. The September section of Volume 32 (1873) sarcastically describes “dear old Uncle Ben Jo” and states that “no botanist ever saw anything like” his so-called bell-tongue plant. A year later, and probably a good deal more frustrated, the editors called the subject “shallow nonsense.” And then, in the 1876 issue, they celebrated the fact that for months nobody had come forward with the next great medicinal remedy that would heal everyone from everything.
Hopefully they enjoyed their brief respite, because there were still a lot of years’ worth of dubious patent medicines ahead of them.
Now we turn to Zoa-Phora, formerly called Dr. Pengelly’s Woman’s Friend. This helpful product was brewed up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, “for all forms of female weakness” and was a hit for a few decades starting around 1870. According to the October 2010 Kalamazoo Antique Bottle Club News, it contained enough alcohol to qualify as liquor. But the interesting part here isn’t the alcohol; it’s the fact that Dr. Pengelly’s wife, Mary, was a key player in Kalamazoo’s Christian temperance movement. Perhaps she was not such a fan of her husband’s Woman’s Friend?
A treasure hunter dug up a lead printing plate for a 19th-century Zoa-Phora advertisement, and was later able to locate an ad it had been used to print in an 1882 issue of The Marshall Statesman. Turns out it offered three glowing reviews of the remedy/booze, one of which claimed total relief from 16 years of spasmodic headaches and nervous exhaustion in less than two hours. “What Zoa Phora won’t do for womankind no medicine will,” boasts an ad from The Ann Arbor Argus in 1895. Sure thing, doc.
8. Dr. Shoop’s Green Salve
Clarendon I. Shoop had a good thing going in Racine, Wisconsin, with a little business he called Dr. Shoop’s Family Medicine Company (later Dr. Shoop Laboratories). Green Salve, an ointment for the lips and skin, was one of many remedies and cures Shoop sold with great success at his medicine shop.
Imagine for a moment smearing yourself with green stuff made by some dude named Shoop. Who in the world would not want to do that? It “makes lips and skin like velvet,” after all. “To have beautiful, pink, velvet-like lips, apply at bedtime a coating of Dr. Shoop’s Green Salve,” commands an ad in a 1906 issue of The Tazewell Republican, although honestly we would expect our lips to turn green instead of pink.
As did many makers of patent medicines, Shoop relied on aggressive advertising to promote his products, at one point partnering with copywriting legend Claude C. Hopkins for a nationwide direct-mail campaign. But the thing that set Shoop apart from many of the patent medicine pushers of his day (read: quacks) was the fact that he was an actual physician. Even though some of his products did contain alcohol and marijuana and the occasional poisonous plant, for the most part he legitimately wanted to help people feel better, and tried to avoid addictive ingredients. “Dr. Shoop all along has bitterly opposed the use of all opiates or narcotics,” reads another ad for his Cough Cure in that Republican issue.
7. Moses Dame’s Wine of the Woods
In case just hearing the words “Moses Dame’s Wine of the Woods” didn’t strike fear into the hearts of men, the Moses Dame Company of Danbury, Connecticut, made sure to include an illustration on its bottles confirming that yes, this here beverage was brewed in a haunted fen and it will likely make you crazy. No meat in this medicine; it’s “a purely vegetable remedy for all diseases arising from derangement of stomach, liver, or blood.” One dollar a bottle; six for $5. Drink first and ask questions later, assuming you’re still alive.
The Moses Dame Company was, beginning in the early 1870s, presided over by a certain Isaac “Ike” Ives, a member of the highly influential Ives clan that owned and operated a smattering of successful businesses in Danbury over the years. Ike was a bit eccentric; he once gave a speech before the entire town pretending to be the traveler and lecturer George Francis “Express” Train when the latter failed to show at the appointed time. (Ike apparently fooled the whole crowd.)
“Where did you buy your lumber?” someone once asked, as reported by the local newspaper in 1874. The response indicated Ike: “From that crazy fellow at White Street bridge.” Maybe he’d been drinking too much of his own medicine.
6. Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment
The original snake oil salesmen were exactly what the name says – people with bad intentions hawking various healing oils and remedies supposedly made with actual snake oil. This particular practice was just another instance of Americans taking something legit from another culture and ruining it. In this case, they ruined the snake oil remedies brought from Asia by Chinese laborers working on the Transcontinental Railroad.
The Chinese had actual snake oil medicine that truly helped fight inflammation. It was made of oil from the Chinese water snake, but since the Chinese water snake did not exist in the U.S. and therefore could not be easily exploited by injudicious Americans, injudicious Americans simply went after something else – the rattlesnake.
Cure-all companies and entrepreneurs began harvesting these innocent serpents for medicine during the 19th century. One man in particular stood out for his particularly daft antics – Clark Stanley, who called himself the Rattlesnake King. Stanley made a name for himself at the 1893 World’s Columbian Expo in Chicago by murdering a bunch of snakes before a crowd, boiling them, and using the fat to mix up a liniment right on the spot. “A wonderful pain destroying compound,” this liniment.
Except, as by now you’ve certainly guessed, it was all just showmanship. Aside from maybe those few batches made in Chicago, Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment had exactly zero percent snake oil. It also didn’t destroy pain. A decade after the Food and Drugs Act, the feds finally got around to investigating this Stanley character, and they fined him $20 for falsely and fraudulently representing his product. Thanks in part to the efforts of Stanley and the other original snake-oil salesmen, we now have a fine metaphor for referring to men and women of dishonest caliber.
If you’ve been interested of late in feeling like a good old-fashioned fighting cock, well, have we got the patent medicine for you. Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Fettle, a superior tonic for the stomach, an ethical and efficable preparation! THE FOE OF INDIGESTION AND THE ALLY OF GOOD HEALTH. And yes, it “makes you feel like a fighting cock,” too. Basically everything a decent American would need to dash through the Roaring Twenties and then pass out on the steps of the Great Depression. (More on drunkenness in a bit.)
The Gettysburg Times from Dec. 21, 1920, has an excellent piece of medical advertising titled “When ‘Off Your Feed’: It’s The World’s Stomach, Not Its Heart That Is Suffering” that proposes Fettle as the final fix for the evils of indigestion. “When You’re fagged out, ‘off your feed’, and your digestive apparatus fails to function properly, you can trace the trouble to indigestion.” This is a bad situation, the ad said, but definitely not your fault. And also, did you know that in such condition “poisonous substances are being forced into your blood” and “your whole system is susceptible to attack by disease germs”? Fortunately there is Fettle for you, which you are going to need if you plan on surviving 12 days of Christmas with the in-laws, not to mention life in general.
“Fettle is not a beverage,” the label is careful to clarify. “Not a substitute for Alcoholic Stimulant.” Four lines later we find the warning: alcoholic content 52% by volume. Yep, that’ll do it.
4. Kendall’s Spavin Cure for Human Flesh
Now, with this one, you may be thinking something along the lines of “What is wrong with human flesh and why do I need to be cured from it? And what is spavin?” Well, Merriam-Webster defines spavin as a “swelling; especially a bony enlargement of the hock of a horse associated with strain.” Considering Kendall’s Spavin Cure by itself, then, we have a medication for a horse’s swollen hind-leg joint.
The “human flesh” part comes later. In the case of Dr. B.J. Kendall and his namesake Enosburg Falls, Vermont, company, this patent medicine was marketed as a cure for various ailments in racehorses and in humans. “Human flesh” simply indicates that the bottle was intended for people. One ad specifies that the cure has been “Refined, expressly for Human Flesh, in red wrappers … In light wrappers, for Animals … That in light wrappers can be used with perfect safety on human flesh, if desired.” Then there are these stupendously racist trade cards for Kendall’s Spavin Cure. Straight from the horse’s mouth: “In all my ‘sperience in the hoss line I nebber seed sich ‘provement in a animile afore. Facts am stranger dan fiction.”
Kendall himself did not do so well financially in the long run, but his company thrived in small-town Enosburg, and was influential enough for the local semipro baseball team to borrow its name – the Enosburg Falls Spavin Curers.
3. Marshmallow Health Pearls
James May of Naugatuck, Connecticut, established the Diamond Laboratory Company sometime in the late 19th century and started bottling ginger ale as well as manufacturing a variety of delightful marshmallow-themed preparations. May is the man you can thank for Marshmallow Health Pearls – and, later, May’s Health Pearls.
May’s sweet little balls were marketed as “the best remedy known for Biliousness, Sick Headache, Constipation and all Liver, Stomach and Bowel Troubles.” And these “little Cathartic Pearls” were reliable (or at least deliciously charming) enough to last more than 20 years on the patent medicine market, “and no medicine could survive that period without real merit,” according to Diamond Laboratory Co.
Diamond Labs’ cash cow, however, was apparently a different sugary bliss beverage called Marshmallow Cream. Don’t Starve Yourself, man.
2. 666 Salve
Monticello Drug Company spent more than a century manufacturing and marketing its line of “666” products for colds, coughs, aches, and pains to customers across the country – even the ones who made fun of it for literally branding itself with the Mark of the Beast. Deuce of Clubs had a jolly time of things in 1994, pestering a customer service rep with questions and then writing a funny piece about it.
This action resulted in a complaint from certain humorless persons at Monticello, and then later an apologetic and positive follow-up from the president himself. In the process we learned how the company decided to adopt its end-of-days name. As told by Monticello, the story goes back to 1908 and the company’s beginnings. At that time in Jacksonville, Florida, Monticello was just getting started and managed to produce a successful quinine medicine for fever and malaria. The medicine worked out, and as fate would have it the number on the very first order written was 666. People started asking for “that 666 product” and Monticello, recognizing an opportunity to sell its soul to the devil for a hundred years of business success, decided to just slap 666 on other products, too.
“For minor burns, cuts and sores we know of no finer dressing than 666 Salve.”
– Monticello Drug Company, from hell
1. Dr. Fuller’s Electro Spiral Magnetic Vegetable Vapor Cure
The directions on Chicago’s Fuller & Fuller’s mouthful of a patent medicine read as follows:
“Uncork bottle and inhale vapor until the head is clear. The effect is magical, giving instant relief. Price one dollar.”
Then, all you had to do was put the cork back in the bottle and slap yourself in the face a few times, because if inhaling the vapors of a “perfectly magnetized” vegetable compound really kicked this much diseased ass, then your mind has conjured a false reality and you need to get out, fast. The National Museum of American History notes that this product was made from 1888 to 1906. Boy, we wonder what else happened in 1906?
But no matter. Go wander a few aisles of vitamins and over-the-counter drugs at your favorite big box or convenience store. We’re all still crazy.