This week I thought I’d take a different approach and talk about Patent Medicines found in the American West between 1860 and 1899. Why? Because it’s the little things that add infinite richness to our stories of the time-period. It doesn’t matter if you are writing a traditional Western, a cross-genre, Steampunk, or a Victorian Romance or Mystery, a light touch of popular patent medicine can add depth and believability while educating and entertaining your reader.
Let’s begin with one of the most universal patent medicine cures of the day—Bitters. It was believed that bitters were a cure for virtually all ailments of the digestive tract. Bitters are made by infusing certain herbs, possibly Gum
Arabic and lavender, in alcohol. When the infusion has reached the proper potency, distilled water is added to bring it to the proper alcohol content. No doubt, the 47% alcohol content of this product contributed to the popularity of this cure especially among the ladies, since alcohol consumption was largely confined to men at the time.
Apparently, tobacco addiction was considered a problem by some folks even then. I have no idea what was included in this next patent medicine cure, but my guess would be that it included alcohol, laudanum, opioids or a combination thereof.
This next one is a little more personal and frightening. Doctor W.R. Merwin’s Cherokee Remedy was sold as a cure for “gonorrhea…and other diseases of the sexual organs in male or female.” Again, no idea what was in it except that, during this period, arsenic was widely used to “cure” sexual disorders.
It would be appropriate to note here that a shortage of women in many of the western towns and widespread prostitution, virtually guaranteed that western men would either abstain or contract some form of venereal disease.
My final example of patent medicines of the time is notable for the totally false claims it makes for it’s curative powers and even the diagnostic claims. This advertisement for Wolcott’s Annihilator states, “Catarrh is an ulceration of the mucous membranes in the head. Matter from those ulcers discharges into the throat and stomach, and is the only cause of consumption. (Consumption was the common term for tuberculosis which we now know is caused by bacteria that spread from person to person through microscopic droplets released into the air.) The ad goes on to
list another half-dozen symptoms which could just as easily be caused by influenza or the common cold and assures by implication that they are sure indicators of consumption requiring Dr Wolcott’s cure.
Again, I have no idea of the contents, but stopping the coughing of consumption of patients would have been the most certain method to convince buyers of the benefits of the product. This could be accomplished with laudanum, opiates, eucalyptus oil or certain other drugs. I would suspect the first two which were quite commonly available at the time.
There were literally hundreds of patent medicines available during the period and any could add a touch of realism and depth to your story.
Perhaps you’ll give it a try. Personally, I think I’ll write a short story about spending the winter in a Wyoming line-shack with a hypochondriac cow puncher.
Until next time.