This post was first published on 20th June, 2014.

Have you ever heard about ‘Patent Medicines?’ While not confusing the term with patented drugs, we should note that this term was associated with drug compounds in the 18th and the 19th century. They were not patented but Trademarked Medicines and were termed Nostrum Remedium in Latin. These medicines were sold with interesting names and tall claims of curing a long list of illnesses!

Originally, patent medicines were named after the ‘Letters Patent’ granted by the English Crown. The first letters patent given to an inventor of a secret remedy, was issued during the late 17th century. The patent granted the medicine maker a monopoly over his particular formula, and eventually, the term patent medicine came to be all pre-packaged medicines sold over-the-counter without a doctor’s prescription.

America was no exception to the influence of English Patent medicines. Within no time, patent medicines became popular in America too. Producers of this type of medicine used more or less similar concoctions. These medicines were largely made up of vegetable extracts, alcohol and cocaine. It became a lucrative business.

The middle of the 19th century, witnessed a boom in the production and consumption of patent medicines. Influencing factors for such a boom were rapid industrialization, increased urban leaving, wide spread advertising and mainly the absence of drug regulation. Producers of patent medicines advertised their products in full swing, to the extent of providing free samples and promotional offers. Such advertisements were very appealing. Surprisingly, Coca Cola originated as a patent medicine in 1885!

The negative side of these popular patent medicines was that they contained dangerous levels of alcohol, opium and other narcotics, potentially addictive and deadly ingredients that were not disclosed to the consumer.

By the end of the 19th century, the fourth estate, with its active campaigning, revealed evidence showing a huge number of deaths and drug addictions due to these patent medicines. The most influential writings were that of Samuel Hopkins Adams in his work, The Great American Fraud. These criticisms and exposure led to the first Federal Food and Drug Act in 1906 by President T. Roosevelt.

Not all medicines of this sort were harmful. Turlington’s Balsam of Life came into the market in the 18th century and was proved to contain genuine medicinal compounds made of herbs. Today, Turlington’s Balsam of Life is manufactured by a firm known as Beaton, Clark and Company Ltd. in England.

Pond’s Extract was able to respond to the Food and Drug Act by transforming itself almost immediately into a skin-care cleansing specialist called Pond’s Cold Cream, which is still in the market today.

In conclusion, we can see that there are several survivors of the infamous Patent Medicines era, existing even to this day, to name a few, Anacin, Bayer’s Aspirin, Vicks VapoRub, Woodward’s Gripe water, Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia among others.


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