This’ll fix you right up!

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?



  1. Careful with the average lifespan assumptions. Early childhood death really brings down the numbers. Even in the 9th century, if you made it to 20 or25, you had a fair chance of living into your 50s/60s. It was those first 20 years that were hardcore survival of the fittest.

  2. One of my Junior High teachers was a descendant of Lilly the Pink and had a bottle (empty) of the stuff in his closet. He was astonished that any of us had ever heard of her. Interestingly, one version of the formula did have a large slug of plant-based estrogens, which may have done some women some good.

    (Grew up singing the entire Irish Rovers collection.)


  3. I too am commenting on the average life expectancy.
    Please note as an example, if out of 100 births 50 of them die before 1 year of age and 50 die at 96 years of age, you are left with an average life expectancy right around 48. Yes, real life is never that simple. However, the high rate of infant mortality does serve to reduce average life expectancy quite a bit.

  4. Saw a bit over at Sarge's place on the Irish Rovers also. I was stationed at NAS Whidbey Island back in the late 60's. A buddy and myself were up in Bellingham on liberty one evening and happened upon the Irish Rovers playing in one of the local hotel's lounge. They were playing to an older crowd who weren't that interested, talking amongst themselves a lot and not paying a lot of attention to the entertainment. My buddy and I sat up front and really enjoyed the show and even had a little interaction with the guys on stage. We ended up staying for the entire show. Fast forward a few days and we took dates back to catch another show, their last of that engagement, IIRC. Well, they had really caught on in the meantime and the place was packed, no seats available. They saw us standing in the doorway and recognized us from the previous evening. They stopped in the middle of the show and arranged for a table to be set up for us up front. Wow, were our dates impressed.

  5. Looking at that portrait of Mrs. Pinkham, I can't help wondering if she ever took up Snark-hunting. She certainly resembles some member of the Bellman's crew, though I can't recall which.

  6. Yep, booze and drugs… Been around for longer than people want to believe, along with the charlatans that prey on honest people…

  7. I remember my mother talking about using "Paragoric" which was a morphine solution. Apparently you could still buy it over the counter until 1970. I read a really good book on the old West Medicine shows about 20 years ago but can't remember the title. That might be another avenue of research. The author closed by saying the Medicine Shows never went away. Now days we just call it television.

  8. Life expectancy calculations are peculiar…60 to 70 (threescore and ten is the measure of a man) is actually a fairly standard constant ever since that phrase got into the Bible way back when, with a reasonable number of people hitting fourscore. But only IF, they avoided a few major things: high infant/child mortality (which actually climbed in the Industrial Era); for adults there are several causes, for men the major killer became death by misadventure (i.e. a traumatic injury leading to fatal infection). For women, death by misadventure was generally second to death in childbirth. For the elderly, pneumonia was the killer, generally before any other serious age related diseases really manifested.
    Or in other words, if you made it through childhood, didn't have a major infection, and if a women made it past child bearing….you were likely to live just as long as an active, healthy person today.

  9. When life expectancy in the US was in the late 50s or thereabouts, I've heard & read that if you made it that far you had a good chance of making to 80 or better. As others have mentioned, the higher childhood death rate brought the mean down.
    Lots of folks see these patent medicines as quack remedies & snake oil, but really, if one was ill with maladies that we had, at that time, no treatment for, I see nothing wrong with the sufferers using such things to assuage pain.
    When my late Dad was dying of lung cancer, he had opiates I would've probably hurt people for in my younger days, when I liked such things. He was doomed & knew it; it made his final decline easier, at least physically. I can't say that was a bad thing 100 years ago, either. I do have a problem with their advertising their wares as a cure or an effective treatment.
    Peter, as you're a minister, I'd be interested in your take on the use of powerful, potentially deadly, drugs in terminal cases.
    –Tennessee Budd

  10. Great Post, Peter!

    Brazil still sells patent cures. One of my wife's friends gave her a 'cleanse' that contained a mild baby laxative and a shit ton of codeine. It certainly would make people feel better!

  11. "Snake-oil salesmen" were all over the country, not just the west. It didn't "cure" anything, but follow the dosages and you won't care….

  12. When mom passed in '94, I found a small bottle of Laudnum in the medicine cabinet. It was that peculiar brown color, about 2 oz, and was 90% full. I sure didn't expect to see that!

  13. Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound was available at least into the seventies as I can remember my momma buying it, at least until my sisters got into a bottle of it.

  14. Anyone stop to consider that people back then might have had the good sense to take these things as MEDICINE rather than mind toys with an addiction to some pleasure center?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *