Snake oil is a product of the past
“Gather around my friends. Yes, Sir. What I have here is my magic elixir with secret ingredients known only to the Medicine Men of the fierce Cheyenne warriors. It will fix whatever ails you. Be it the scurvy, stomach ailments, a weak heart, obstinate coughs, or the gout. My magic elixir makes it all go away. Step right up. Buy two bottles and get one free. Only a dollar a bottle.”
We all grew up watching western movies with the Snake Oil Doctor making his pitch. Remember, it was the Wild West. Leading up to, and at the turn of the 20th century, there were no federal regulations preventing the mixing of potent dangerous drugs in medicine from being sold to the public. It’s amazing the users didn’t die from taking their medicine, or become addicted.
Contents of 'snake oil' examples
Let’s take a look at some examples:
Figure 1: White Eagle’s Indian Oil Liniment/Formerly Called Rattlesnake Oil (Piqua, Ohio) Note: There isn’t any mention of the ingredients
Figure 2: Sterns Tonic (Detroit Mich.) ... Alcohol 16% ... Treatment of general and nervous exhaustion, simple anaemia, malnutrition, loss of appetite and impoverished blood supply. Note: The last line on the label states: “This style label adopted 1916” was as a result of the 1906 Act.
Figure 3: PAREGORIC ... Alcohol 46%, GRAN. OPIUM 1.9 GRS. – CANNAN DRUG & JEWELRY CO. – Goldfield Hotel, Goldfield Nevada – Note: Bottled prior to 1906.
But, legislation didn’t happen overnight. Nearly thirty years before the law was enacted, the public was being made aware of the issues in the drug and food industry by journalists referred to as Muckrakers, such as Samuel Hopkins Adams, targeting patent medicines with their high alcoholic content, opium derivatives, and other narcotics such as morphine, cocaine, heroin, and cannabis, better known as marijuana.
Who said the use of marijuana was a new issue?
Along with Adams, Dr. Harvey Wiley, the Chief Chemist of the Bureau of Chemistry (then a Department in the U.S. Government) caught the country’s attention by developing devastating hygienic studies and presenting them to Congress in 1902.
The final blow was the 1906 publication of “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair, painting an ugly picture of the working conditions in Chicago’s meat packing industry, forcing Congress to take action. The result: The Pure Food & Drug Act of June 30, 1906 and the Sherley Amendment of 1912.
The Snake Oil Doctor still pitches in those old Westerns, but he met his demise with the passage of these drug laws. In summary, the 1906 law banned mislabeled and adulterated drugs and food items in interstate commerce.
As with any law, loopholes existed. The 1906 law did not have a requirement that information be submitted to the FDA before marketing, and only required that the drugs met standards of specific strength and purity. Therefore, the government had to show that the drug company label was misleading or false in order to take it off the market.
The first major test to the 1906 Act occurred in 1910 when the U.S. government pressed charges against a product labeled Johnson’s Mild Combination for Cancer. In the case, U.S. vs. Johnson, the Supreme Courts ruled against the government stating the false product claims by Johnson were not covered within the scope of the 1906 Act.
To fix that issue, Congress enacted the Sherley Amendment in 1912 prohibiting labeled medicines with false or misleading claims intended to dupe the customer. The Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1938 resulted in a comprehensive overhaul of the 1906 act, eliminating the Sherley Amendment, and closing the remaining loop-holes.
The 1906 Act brought a wide range of impacts forcing the drug industry to implement changes in how they handled every facet of their business. A perfect example were the changes to the bottle identification for paper labels and embossed bottles.
The Figure 4 bottle prior to 1906 was embossed as: “Dr. DEWITT’S LIVER BLOOD/ & KIDNEY CURE /W.J. PARKER & CO. BALTO MD.” To continue selling their product, the company was required to remove the word “Cure” from the embossing pattern with a small plate engraved with “Remedy,” and add the letter “Y,” engraved on the surface of the mold which was previously blank, depicting the word “Remedy.”
Figure 5 depicts a close-up of the fine line “box” made by the edges of the plate replacing “Cure” with “Remedy.” This change had to be implemented on hundreds of thousands of embossed and labeled medicine bottles, causing many companies to go out of business.
Another example is the impact on the Lash’s Bitter Company. In 2003, Michael Torbenson and Johathon Erlen, the Department of Pathology, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, conducted a study of how the drug companies had to comply or cease to exist. The study is titled, “A Case Study of the Lash’s Bitter Company – Advertising Changes after the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906 and the Sherley Amendment of 1912.” “The goals of this study are (1) report our dating method for Lash’s trade card and (2) examine in detail how trade card advertisements changed over time ... before and after the Food and Drug Act and the Sherley Amendment.”
As stated in their study, “We hypothesized that responses to the pharmaceutical legislation may be reflected in advertisements from patent medicine companies ... we devised a method to accurately date trade cards from the Lash’s Bitters company (1884-1966) and examine how advertising ... changed over time. Trade cards for the Lash’s Bitter Company were available from 1903 to 1935.”
The study continues to state that, “Prior to 1906, Lash’s Bitters was primarily marketed ... as either a family medicine, or more commonly, with sexual innuendos ... both groups of cards made claims for curing ... indigestion, biliousness, dyspepsia, malaria, chills and fever, rheumatism, and nervous or sick headache.” After the enactment of the 1906 Act, “very few cards contained sexual innuendo, but were replaced ... by depicting Lash’s Bitters in the setting of alcohol consumption.”
“After 1912, every known trade card describes ... Lash’s Bitters in the setting of alcohol use. No cards claimed to be a family medicine and no cards claimed to cure disease.”
The paper continues to state that after 1906, “the inscription ‘Purity Guaranteed’ was removed from the label and an alcohol content of 21% was listed. In the study’s closing comments, it is noted that, “Lash’s Bitters ... response to the 1906 and 1912 laws ... illustrates this company’s strategy for surviving ... after 1906 ... de-emphasized the medical aspects of their product and emphasized the use of their bitters in situations of alcohol consumption.”
Their final conclusion summarizes the approach that all of the major drug companies implemented in order to continue and survive.
- “Modify ... wording on their labels and trade cards to comply.”
- “Reducing the claims of medical benefits.”
- “Emphasizing the use of their product in the setting of alcohol consumption.”
“Keep Having Fun with the Hobby of Bottle Collecting.”
Medicine Bottle Auction Prices Realized
- BlackHawk Indian Liniment, Rattlesnake Oil, 5 ½”, Clear, 1890-1900, $175 (July 2018)
- Royal Cough Cure, Cold Expeller, 6 ¾”, Clear, Dill Medicine Co., Norristown, PA, 1900-1905, $80 (July 2018)
- De Witt’s Colic & Cholera Cure, 5”, Aqua, E.C. De Witt & Co., Chicago, 1890-1900, $55 (July 2018)
- Dr. Shoop’s Fever Remedy, 6 ½”, Aqua, Dr. Shoop’s Family Medicines, Racine, Wis., 1885-1900, $80 (2018)
- Wilbur’s Pink Eye Cure, 6”, Clear, 1890-1905, $275 (March 2018)
- Wm. Radam’s Microbe Killer, Germ Bacteria or Fungus Destroyer, 10 ½”, Square Shape, Amber, 1890-1910, $250 (March 2018)
- Dr. Fenner’s Kidney and Backache Cure, 8 ½”, Amber, Fredonia, N.Y. U.S.A., 1872-1898, $190 (March 2018)
- Gargling Oil Liniment, Man or Beast, 5 ½”, Green, Lockport, N.Y., 1885-1910, $75 (March 2018)
- Prof. Deans King Cactus Oil Company, Healing Oil Liniment, 6 ¼”, Clear, Clinton, Iowa, 1890-1906, $300 (July 2016)
- Dr. Miles Tonic & Regulatory Heart Treatment, 8 ¼”, Aqua, Elkhart, Indiana, 1890-1910, $353 (March 2016)
Antique Bottle References:
- Lindsey, Bill. Historic Glass Bottle Identification & Information Website, ONLINE, 2010. Society for Historical Archaeology and Bureau of Land Management. Available: http://www.sha.org/bottle/index.htm (Bottle Typing/Diagnostic Shapes, Medicinal/Chemical/Druggist Bottles – Page 2 of 52 and Page 3 of 53)
- Torbenson, Michael and Erien, Jonathon. A Case Study of the Lash’s Bitters Company — Advertising Changes after the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906 and the Sherley Amendment of 1912, Pharmacy in History, Vol 45,, No.(2003) pp. 139-149, Published by: American Institute of the History of Pharmacy, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41112177, Page Count: 11
- Meadows, Michelle. Promoting Safe & Effective Drugs for 100 Years, FDA Consumer Magazine, the Centennial Edition/January-February 2006
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