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Patent Medicines: Preying on Ignorance

Patent medicines in their original sense referred to medications whose ingredients had been granted government protection for exclusivity. The Constitution (Article I, Section 8, Clause 8) granted Congress the power to regulate such protections; a Patent Office was established in 1790. In actuality, however, the recipes of most 19th century patent medicines were not officially patented. Some manufacturers chose to obtain patents on their labels or bottle shapes. Most producers (often small family operations) used ingredients quite similar to their competitors—vegetable extracts laced with ample doses of alcohol. Many concoctions were fortified with morphine, opium or cocaine. No wonder people felt better when they took their medicine! Remedies were available for almost any ailment. Since the products were often addictive, there was a good deal of repeat business, once a person could be persuaded to give a patent medicine its first chance. As a result, newspaper and magazine advertising made exaggerated claims that helped enormously to spread word to the nation's remotest corners. Advertising and labels heralded such enticements as:

"Foley's Honey & Tar for Coughs and Colds"
"Dr. Miller's Vegetable Expectorate for All Lung Ailments"
"Munson's Paw-Paw Pills to Coax Your Liver into Action"

From earliest times, physicians and medical societies were critical of patent medicines. They argued that the remedies did not cure illnesses, discouraged patients from seeking legitimate treatments and caused drug and alcohol dependency. The temperance movement of the late 19th century provided another voice to the chorus of critics. As the 20th century began, public attitudes toward government regulation of business began to change, which prepared the way for such legislation as the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. The regulation of patent medicines exposed to many people just what the ingredients were, which in turn made them understand the dangers. The patent medicine industry in general could not withstand this sort of scrutiny and quickly died out.