During the 19th century the business of Proprietary Medicines thrived. With little to no federal regulation, just about anybody could call themselves a "doctor". There were hundreds manufacturer's of elixirs, blood purifiers, medicinals salves, and balms that cured every ailment under the sun.
These medicines frequently bore the name of the inventor, fostering a sense of legitimacy, and reliability. Having a bottle in your cabinet was like "have a doctor in the house". Most claimed to contain rare herbs, or roots from the Middle East or Orient, but usually only contained alcohol, or if your were lucky, an opium product.
So without T.V. or radio, how did these products sell? They brought the product to you via traveling road shows. A horse and wagon would roll into town with much fanfare. Towns people, who were mostly deprived of entertainment, got to see singers, freaks, magicians. In between acts, a physician would make an appearance and push his medical miracle. A "plant" in the audience would falsely testify how the medicine saved their life. Then "hawkes" would walk through the crowd selling bottles for 1-2 dollars. Each sales person would only carry 2-3 bottles, and would yell out "Sold out doctor", creating a buying frenzy at the front of the stage where the price was driven up a few more dollars.
When automobiles became popular, and road became mainstream, entrepreneurs would buy space on downtown brick buildings, and in the rural areas, on the sides of barns. Selling these medicines in rural area proved to be highly successful for several reasons:
- The population tended to be less sophisticated
- The distance one had to travel to see a real physician could be long if not impossible
- Less likely the population heard testimony from previous victims of these scammers
In Sonoma County we are proud to have a property owner who has maintained one of those barn advertisements.
Located on US 101 in Asti, this barn is familiar to all who travel the 101 corridor. Unfortunitly, most don't know the history of Dr. Pierce's Medical Discovery.
Dr. Ray Vaughn Pierce (1840-1914) one of the more successful 19th century Snake Oil Quacks. Dr. Pierce first started his pharmaceutical entrepreneurship in Buffalo N.Y. pushing his own "blood purifier" known as Dr. Pierce's Golden Medical Discovery. He, and his son, Valentine Motts Pierce (1865 -1942) ssuccessfully sold the elixir for 90+ years. This billboard can be found in other parts of the country, as I found researching this article on Google.
In 1906 the Federal Government passed the Federal Pure Food and Drug Act which required manufacturers of these products to state what the product was made of. This new regulation was hardly enforced, and if violations were found, and small fine was imposed. The pushers of these products considered the fines to simply be the price of doing business. Those that stayed in business benefited from the ability to state "approved by the Pure Food and Drug Act" which only solidified their place in the medicinal market till the mid 1900's.