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Patent medicines

Trade card advertising 'Dr James's Powder for Fevers', 1700s.

Trade card advertising 'Dr James's Powder for Fevers', 1700s.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

With few exceptions (such as terra sigillata), medicines in Antiquity and the Middle Ages were not ‘brand named’. This changed in England in the 1600s, when medical doctors and unlicensed practitioners who invented new medical recipes started marketing them as ‘patent medicines’. This did not mean that the medicines were patented, but that they were original, and the recipes were often kept secret by the person who invented them to avoid imitation. Many of these patent medicines were sold under the name of the inventor, or other brand names. In the 1700s, English customers could buy many different patent medicines, from the painkiller Dr James's Powders and Scotch Pills to Solomon's Balm of Gilead and Brodum's Cordial. In the 1800s, Britain enjoyed Morison's Vegetable Pills, while Americans swore by Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, marketed as ‘the greatest remedy in the world’ - a patent medicine which made its inventor, Lydia Pinkham (1819-83), one of the most successful female entrepreneurs of her time.

Some patent medicines were the ancestors of today’s over-the-counter medicines. However, many were exposed as having no effect, and some patent medicines have been associated with medical quackery. Sellers of patent medicines often used clever and inventive ways to market their products, from early uses of newspaper advertising in the 1600s to travelling medical shows in the 1700s and 1800s, which combined the selling of medicines with all sorts of entertainment such as acrobatics and magic tricks. In the 1900s governments began to regulate the production and sale of medicines to protect customers from the ill effects of quack cures.

Bibliography

P G Homan, B Hudson, R C Rowe, Popular Medicines: an Illustrated History (London, Chicago: Pharmaceutical Press, 2008)

R Porter, Quacks: Fakers and Charlatans in English Medicine (Stroud: Tempus, 2000)

Glossary:

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