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Cures and Quackery: The Rise of Patent Medicines

Denis Goulet, Université de Sherbrooke

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Introduction:

Denis Goulet, Université de Sherbrooke, 2003

How did Canadians care for their health in the latter half of the 19th century? In those days, medical science was making great strides in diagnostic techniques and disease classification. But curative medicine was evolving more slowly and remained limited in scope. With many Canadians facing precarious living and sanitary conditions, the demand for therapeutic products was high.

Doctors and druggists were struggling to secure a greater share of the health care market. Hospital dispensaries were generally run by pharmacists and apothecary nuns, who prepared the physician-prescribed medicines.

In the home, self-prescribed medication was still the norm for treating common illnesses. Quacks and opportunistic entrepreneurs capitalized on this situation, flooding the market with a host of low-cost "miracle" cures. As of the mid-1800s, ads for these patent remedies, or nostrums, crowded the pages of Canadian newspapers and magazines.


M2621.1.1-2
© McCord Museum
Surgical set
1834, 19th century
Wood: mahogany; metal: iron, brass; fibre: velvet
8 x 3 x 13 cm
Gift of Mr. David Ross McCord
M2621.1.1-2
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Prior to the 1860s, family doctors played a fairly limited role in health care. They were usually called in only in cases of serious illness or accident. Doctors were not as trusted as they are today, and for much of the population, they were economically or geographically out of reach.

Besides prescribing and preparing medicine for the sick, doctors often had to amputate legs, hands and arms. In provision for these painful surgical procedures, which were performed without anaesthetic, their bags were packed with different types of saws and tourniquets.

They also carried tools for extracting foreign bodies lodged in eyes and ears and under the skin in work-related accidents. And no kit was complete without instruments for pulling teeth and assisting childbirth. Some might say that 19th-century physicians had an advantage, in that a large part of their therapeutic arsenal was easily transportable.

What:

Wooden case containing the instruments needed for emergency surgical procedures.

Where:

Portable surgical kits of this sort were used by doctors in Europe and North America to care for patients at home or on the scene of an accident.

When:

This surgical kit was made in 1834. The instruments are typical of those used until the mid-19th century. With the development of clinical medicine, many more and diverse surgical instruments came into use.

Who:

This kit belonged to Dr. E. Robillard. As of 1788, only surgeons and doctors certified by a board of examiners were authorized to use these instruments in Canada.

M18578.1-27
© McCord Museum
Medical case
1869-1878, 19th century
15 x 7 cm
Gift of Mrs. D.A.Murray
M18578.1-27
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

For less serious complaints, doctors frequently practiced phlebotomy, or bloodletting, using a lancet to pierce a vein in the patient's neck, arm or shin. This operation was meant to restore the balance of the bodily humours (fluids), particularly the proportion of blood. Leeches and suction cups were used to extract small quantities of blood.

Even in the late 19th century, some doctors believed that health depended on the balance of the four elemental humours of the human body: blood, yellow bile, black bile (watery stools) and phlegm (nasal secretions). Illness, on the other hand, was attributed to an imbalance caused by either too much or too little of one or other humour.

The proposed treatments - laxatives, emetics or expectorants - were aimed at restoring the equilibrium of these fluids. This ancient concept of illness is at the root of such familiar expressions as "she's in a bad humour", "my blood is boiling", "the failure was galling", "don't vent your spleen" and "he has a phlegmatic (bilious, sanguine) disposition".

References
Traité élémentaire de matière médicale et guide pratique des soeurs de charité de l'Asile de la Providence (Montreal: Imprimerie de la Providence, 1890), pp. 1-81.

What:

This small medical instrument case holds several folding knives called lancets, which served to bleed patients. As was common, these lancets are sheathed in mother-of-pearl.

Where:

Lancets were widely used by doctors in Europe and North America. Phlebotomy, or bloodletting, was usually practiced on the patient's neck, arms or legs, depending on the location of the ailment.

When:

This type of lancet was introduced in Canada in the 18th century and used until the 1860s. Bloodletting gradually lost favour with doctors as the practice of clinical medicine developed.

Who:

In North America, bloodletting lancets were generally employed by doctors. In Europe, the procedure was performed by barber-surgeons until the 18th century.

M6561B.1-2
© McCord Museum
Mortar and pestle
1880-1900, 19th century
7 cm
Gift of the Estate of Mrs. Mount-Duckett
M6561B.1-2
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Throughout the 19th century, many medicines were prepared with unsophisticated means by druggists (pharmacists), doctors, apothecary nuns and manufacturers of proprietary medicines.

Medical treatises and closely guarded recipes gave the ingredients, dosage and effects of the various preparations - powders, pills, pastilles, syrups, unguents, balms, pomades, etc. - which might be ordered by doctors or self-prescribed.

The medicine maker's basic tool was a marble or metal mortar for grinding plants, minerals and animal parts. Once reduced to powder, these ingredients served as a base for countless varieties of commercial remedies. The mortar and pestle has long been a symbol of the apothecary trade.

References
Traité élémentaire de matière médicale et guide pratique des soeurs de charité de l'Asile de la Providence (Montreal: Imprimerie de la Providence, 1890), pp. 748, 799, 812-813.

What:

Ceramic mortar. The pestle is made of ceramic and wood.

Where:

Mortars were used everywhere medicines were prepared: pharmacies, doctors' offices, small pharmaceutical companies, etc.

When:

This mortar was made in the late 19th century. Metal mortars were found to be most durable and gradually replaced the marble versions.

Who:

The mortar and pestle were indispensable to the work of pharmacists, doctors and makers of secret remedies.

M21681.1-2
© McCord Museum
Medecine Chest
1875-1900, 19th century
16.5 x 26.2 x 19 cm
Gift of Mrs. William R. Bentham
M21681.1-2
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

This portable medicine chest holds a typical assortment of the remedies most widely dispensed by Canadian family doctors in the latter half of the 19th century.

There are various types of pills (liver pills, camphor pills), a syrup, medicinal wines (antimonial wine, ipecacuanha wine), an elixir, anaesthetics and sedatives (ether, chloroform) and analgesics for dulling pain (morphine and laudanum, a tincture of opium). There is also a powerful paregoric (camphorated tincture of opium) used to treat diarrhea.

Doctors frequently prepared the necessary medication on the spot. So the chest also contains an iodine solution and spirits of ammonia for dissolving the botanical ingredients used in liquid medicines.

References
Traité élémentaire de matière médicale et guide pratique des soeurs de charité de l'Asile de la Providence (Montreal: Imprimerie de la Providence, 1890), pp. 483, 486.

J.-C. Dousset, Histoire des médicaments des origines à nos jours (Paris: Payot, 1985), p. 378.

J. K. Crellin, Home Medicine (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994), p. 118.

What:

This wood and leather medicine chest contains the necessary items for making various remedies: bottles of medicinal products, knife, measuring cup, mortar and pestle, spatula, spoon and syringe.

Where:

Portable pharmacy kits were widely used by doctors in Canada for house calls and at accident scenes.

When:

Doctors used medicine chests of this sort chiefly in the latter half of the 19th century. Similar kits were carried by itinerant druggists, who traveled from village to village.

Who:

The remedies in this kit were made in London, the U.S. or Montreal. In Montreal, most were sold by S. J. Lyman & Co. or Kenneth Campbell & Co.

M21681.25
© McCord Museum
Bottle
IPECACUANHA WINE
1850-1900, 19th century
Glass
11.9 x 3.9 x 2.9 cm
Gift from Mrs. William R. Bentham
M21681.25
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Ipecacuanha, or ipecac, is an exotic medicinal that has been around since the 18th century. It contains an extract made by soaking the root of a Brazilian shrub in water or alcohol, which is then added to medicinal wines or syrups.

In high doses, its active ingredient, emetine, causes vomiting. The belief was that this rid the body of excess bile, thus restoring the balance of the humours. Most often, it was used in small doses as an expectorant and diaphoretic (sweat-causing) agent in treating colds and flus.

Ipecac mixed with various wines and syrups was still very popular in the late 19th century. One curious recipe recommends combining mutton fat with ipecac in hot milk for use as a chest poultice.

References
D. Goulet and A. Paradis, Trois siècles d'histoire médicale au Québec. Chronologie des institutions et des pratiques médicales (1639-1939) (Montreal: Éditions VLB, "Études québécoises" series, 1992), pp. 211, 215, 224-225.

G. Bilson, A Darkened House: Cholera in 19th Century Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980), pp. 48, 118, 128.

What:

This small bottle contains a highly alcoholic medicinal wine laced with an extract of ipecacuanha, or ipecac.

Where:

The ipecacuanha wine in this bottle was prepared by S. J. Lyman & Co., located on Place d'Armes in Montreal. Ipecacuanha and quinine wines were sold in pharmacies, drugstores and some shops.

When:

Ipecac came into use in the 17th century in Europe and was popularized in secret remedies beginning in the 18th century.

Who:

Ipecacuanha wines were generally used by people with gastro-intestinal problems, bronchitis or pneumonia. In low doses, they were also recommended for children with diarrhea.

M21681.21
© McCord Museum
Bottle
DWIGHT'S REMEDY FOR CHOLERA Diarrhea, etc.
1850-1900, 19th century
Glass
11.8 x 3.9 x 2.8 cm
Gift from Mrs. William R. Bentham
M21681.21
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Cholera struck hard and long in 19th-century Canada. The first epidemic occurred in 1832 and rapidly swept through Upper and Lower Canada, claiming more than 12,000 lives. Other major cholera outbreaks occurred later in the century.

This devastating disease gripped people's minds, creating a climate of terror. The corpses it left behind were blue-black, which gave rise to the French expression avoir une peur bleue, meaning to be badly frightened (scared blue).

Up to the end of the 19th century, people associated sickness with miasma (noxious vapours from putrefying matter), believed to poison the body. This explains why cannon salvos were fired in Quebec City during the 1832 epidemic, in an effort to alter the pernicious properties of the air. The results were hardly conclusive.

Doctors were at a loss to cure the dreadful infection and its attendant diarrhea and vomiting. Inevitably, there were opportunists who claimed to have found miracle cures. The product seen here professes to prevent cholera.

References
Traité élémentaire de matière médicale et guide pratique des soeurs de charité de l'Asile de la Providence (Montreal: Imprimerie de la Providence, 1890), pp. 26-27, 680.

What:

As the label indicates, the solution in this bottle was used to treat cholera and diarrhea.

Where:

This type of remedy was probably distributed in all Canadian regions.

When:

As violent epidemics of cholera swept Canada in the 19th century, many medications appeared on the market.

Who:

This remedy was developed by a Dr. Dwight. The ravages caused by cholera prompted numerous people - some well intentioned, some less so - to offer therapeutic concoctions for sale.

M973.137.9
© McCord Museum
Cup
QUASSIA or TONIC CUP
1850-1900, 19th century
14.1 x 6.8 cm
Gift of Mrs. Donald A. MacInnes
M973.137.9
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Quassia - also called bitter ash, bitterwood, bitter bark, etc. - is a tropical tree whose wood was used for its vivifying properties. In the 1800s, quassia chips were decocted or infused to make popular tonics sold over the counter in many pharmacies. One pharmacology treatise notes that this medicine "acts gradually on the entire system to increase strength in a lasting manner."

Quassia was said to stimulate the gastro-intestinal tract, thus improving appetite and aiding digestion. An analeptic, or restorative, it was extolled as a natural product that fortifies the blood, like the iron found in meat.

Some also recommended it for soothing itchy mosquito bites.

References
Traité élémentaire de matière médicale et guide pratique des soeurs de charité de l'Asile de la Providence (Montreal: Imprimerie de la Providence, 1890), p. 483.

J. K. Crellin, Home Medicine (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994), p. 118.

What:

This cup is made of quassia wood. The cup and its contents share the same name, since the cup itself brewed the remedy. Water left standing in it overnight became a bitter infusion that served as a stomach tonic.

Where:

Bitterwood, one of several names for quassia, comes from the tropical forests of South America. It was sold in Canada by doctors and druggists.

When:

This cup probably dates to the latter half of the 19th century. Quassia was used until the 1890s to treat severe weakness, headaches and digestive problems.

Who:

Prescribed by doctors or sold over the counter by druggists, quassia was recommended for people suffering from chronic fatigue, poor digestion and loss of appetite.

M930.50.5.41
© McCord Museum
Engraving
Liebig's liquid extract of beef and tonic invigorator
John Henry Walker (1831-1899)
1850-1885, 19th century
Ink on paper on supporting paper - Wood engraving
4.1 x 7.2 cm
Gift of Mr. David Ross McCord
M930.50.5.41
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Tonics of all sorts, many made from beef extract, were extremely popular and widely advertised. Unlike fast-acting stimulants, which quickly wore off, tonics worked slowly and had a lasting effect. They were believed to invigorate all parts of the body. Beef concentrate, in particular, served to "regenerate" and "enrich" the blood.

In traditional societies like that of 19th-century Canada, the most common signs of illness were a feeling of weakness and impeded physical activity. And since a diminished capacity for work and physical exertion was a constant threat to the well-being and livelihood of day labourers, workers and housewives, advertisers focused on these obvious symptoms. As a result, the potential customer base was very large.

The proposed cures were based on increasing the patient's energy and restoring strength. This accounts for the profusion of nostrums that produced only vague effects, while claiming to cure a wide range of ailments and diseases.

References
Traité élémentaire de matière médicale et guide pratique des soeurs de charité de l'Asile de la Providence <\I>(Montreal: Imprimerie de la Providence, 1890), p. 156.

J. K. Crellin, Home Medicine <\I>(Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994), pp. 149, 206-207.

What:

Engraved print by John Henry Walker advertising a beef extract tonic fortified with cocaine and a high concentration of alcohol, about 23°.

Where:

This tonic was very popular in Canada. Some religious communities marketed competitive products. The "iron-rich beef extract" made by the Sisters of Charity in Montreal was said to be one of the best preparations of the sort.

When:

Widely advertised from the 1850s through the 1930s, this product was especially recommended for use during the winter.

Who:

The Liebig Company of New York marketed this product as Coca Beef Tonic. The advertising was targeted to all sufferers of general fatigue.

RB-0695
© McCord Museum
Booklet
Diseases of the Nervous System, and How to Cure Them - Paine's Celery Compound
Wells & Richardson Co.
1896, 19th century
Paper
24.7 x 17 cm
RB-0695
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Famous for its eye-catching ads seen throughout Canada during much of the 19th century, Paine's Celery Compound laid claim to a multitude of medicinal virtues. It was recommended for nervous disorders (especially for women), depression, liver complaints, rheumatism and digestive problems. In fact, though, this type of product was employed mainly as a stimulant or antiparasitic (against intestinal worms).

The manufacturer employed a fairly common sales tactic, distributing a free brochure that explained the product's benefits. Ads for remedies claiming similarly broad curative powers can be found on the Web today.

Some American companies went a step further, offering medical diagnosis by correspondence. Readers were asked to describe their illness or affliction in a letter, and, needless to say, the response recommended long-term treatment and promised a full cure. This was a prevalent practice.

References
D. Goulet, Le Commerce des maladies, (Quebec City: Institut québécois de recherche sur la culture, Edmond De Nevers Collection, 1987), pp. 92-96, 109.

E. S. Turner, The Shocking History of Advertising<\I> (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1953), pp. 204-205.

What:

Advertising pamphlet published by Wells & Richardson to promote the "miraculous" properties of Paine's Celery Compound.

Where:

Printed in Montreal, this pamphlet was distributed throughout the U.S. and Canada. Similar publications were published in French for Canadian Francophones.

When:

This pamphlet was issued in 1896. Brochures of this sort were distributed by mail, on request, and widely used by the manufacturers of secret remedies in the late 19th century.

Who:

Paine's Celery Compound was made by Wells & Richardson of Burlington, Vermont. It was marketed chiefly to people suffering from nervous disorders.

RB-0695.2
© McCord Museum
Print
"I Was Dying !"
Wells & Richardson Co.
1896, 19th century
Paper
24.7 x 17 cm
RB-0695.2
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

The use of testimonials from people allegedly cured by the advertised product was widespread at the time. Many ads featured long excerpts from letters attesting to former ailments and lauding the benefits of the remedy and its secret ingredients. The strategy was to personalize the pitch, making readers feel as if they were hearing the story firsthand.

Most of these testimonials were partially made up by the advertisers. The actual letters were altered to exaggerate the writers' symptoms, thus playing up the remedy's far-reaching, miraculous properties. Correspondents generally received a sample of the manufacturer's product with the response. Their letters were sold to other companies looking for similar material to boost sales.

To allay consumer scepticism, advertisers promised vast sums of money to anyone who could prove the testimonials to be false. Manufacturers are far less likely to make such promises today.

References
D. Goulet, Le Commerce des maladies, (Quebec City: Institut québécois de recherche sur la culture, "Edmond De Nevers" series, 1987), pp. 86-87.

J. Collin and D. Béliveau, Histoire de la pharmacie au Québec (Montreal: Musée de la pharmacie du Québec, 1994), pp. 146-155.

What:

Excerpts of a testimonial from an advertising pamphlet by Wells & Richardson, maker of Paine's Celery Compound.

Where:

Depending on the targeted clientele, the advertiser used testimonials from the U.S. or Canada. The pamphlet features numerous excerpts, including this one from Mrs. Lefebvre and one from Mrs. Pierce of Saint John, New Brunswick.

When:

In the late 19th century, remedy manufacturers began deploying new strategies to win over readers: eye-catching headlines, testimonials from the allegedly cured, exaggerated illnesses and inflated product benefits.

Who:

Wells & Richardson was accused of conspiring with a Chicago daily to manufacture false testimonials in the late 19th century.

RB-0695.3
© McCord Museum
Print
Doctors and a Specialist Failed ! People Called it a Miracle !
Wells & Richardson Co.
1896, 19th century
Paper
24.7 x 17 cm
RB-0695.3
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Here the maker of Paine's Celery Compound has used a popular technique to sway potential customers. Under dramatic headlines announcing miracles of healing, the remedy is presented as a universal panacea able to cure almost every aliment, even the most severe.

This is followed by a minutely detailed description of the patients' medical history, their fruitless visits to doctors and, finally, their cure by the much-vaunted product. These particular ads place great emphasis on the doctors' inability to heal the pictured patients.

Such boldfaced claims were bound to irritate physicians. In the late 19th century, several Canadian medical bodies filed suit to have this type of advertising outlawed. But vast commercial interests were at stake, and the complainants ran up against the proprietary medicine lobby.

It wasn't until the early 20th century that the federal government forced manufacturers to label their products with usage and dosage specifications and the ingredients.

References
D. Goulet, Le Commerce des maladies, (Quebec City: Institut québécois de recherche sur la culture, "Edmond De Nevers" series, 1987), pp. 68-70.

J. Collin and D. Béliveau, Histoire de la pharmacie au Québec (Montreal: Musée de la pharmacie du Québec, 1994), pp. 131, 138.

J. K. Crellin, Home Medicine (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994), pp. 148-150.

What:

The miracle cure is, in fact, a compound of celery seeds and various plant products in a highly alcoholic solution.

Where:

This was one of the most popular secret remedies on the American market and a big seller in Canada, as well.

When:

Paine's Celery Compound was first marketed in the mid-1800s. It reached its heyday at the turn of the century, then declined over the next few decades due to legal restrictions on its marketing claims.

Who:

Ads of this sort were designed to reach families and portray doctors as inefficient. Here the claim is for the cure of chorea, a nervous disorder commonly called St. Vitus' dance.

M930.50.5.136
© McCord Museum
Engraving
Commercial label of Gardner's Iron pills, Female pills, J. Gardner, Chemist
John Henry Walker (1831-1899)
1850-1885, 19th century
Ink on paper on supporting paper - Wood engraving
5.2 x 4.2 cm
Gift of Mr. David Ross McCord
M930.50.5.136
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Manufacturers of patent remedies aggressively marketed their wares to women. Pills expressly formulated to cure "female ailments" and "afflictions of the weaker sex" (menstrual cramps, menopausal disorders, etc.) were touted in Canadian magazines and daily papers. Gardner's Female Pills, also used to treat hysteria, were among the endless assortment of red and pink tablets, most of them containing high doses of iron.

Remedies for women came in other forms as well. Many tonic wine and syrup manufacturers were assiduously courting this clientele. Ayer's Cherry Pectoral, for instance, claimed to cure respiratory problems and had a pleasant cherry flavour, but its active ingredient was none other than morphine.

The ailments cited in ads aimed at women were generally associated with iron deficiency and apt to strike fear into the heart of even the most intrepid reader: weakness, fatigue, nervous troubles, wan complexion, vomiting, fainting, depression and so on.

Advertisers exploited these symptoms to boost stimulant sales or to promote various cure-alls specifically designed for female ills.

References
D. Goulet, Le Commerce des maladies, (Quebec City: Institut québécois de recherche sur la culture, "Edmond De Nevers" series, 1987), p. 122.

What:

Commercial label for a box of iron pills; engraving by John Henry Walker.

Where:

The manufacturer of this patent remedy was located at the corner of McGill and Notre Dame streets in Montreal and advertised it principally to local ladies.

When:

Iron pills were very much in vogue among women in the latter half of the 19th century.

Who:

Chemist J. Gardner, the maker of these pills, marketed them to young women, especially those suffering from menstrual irregularity.

M2003X.6.1.64.416
© McCord Museum
Print
Baldness is Curable
1878, 19th century
Paper
6.8 x 6.3 cm
M2003X.6.1.64.416
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

The term "elixir" - long associated with alchemists and promises of eternal youth - was shrewdly appropriated to designate sweetened aromatic solutions of alcohol and water containing small quantities of colouring, plant or animal extract, or salt. The composition of these products varied widely. There were elixirs of liquorice, coca leaf, hops, chloroform, etc.

In general, they were used for their invigorating, stimulating effect or, inversely, as relaxants. They were also recommended as astringent agents for tightening the skin.

Some patent elixir makers even claimed to have found a magic formula for curing baldness. Not only would the miracle product prevent hair loss, it would make all lost hair grow back!

References
J. Collin and D. Béliveau, Histoire de la pharmacie au Québec (Montreal: Musée de la pharmacie du Québec, 1994), p. 137.

J. K. Crellin, Home Medicine (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994), p. 40.

What:

Advertisement (engraved) vaunting the merits of miracle cures for restoring lost hair.

Where:

Highly popular in Europe and North America, products for enhancing hair growth were widely advertised.

When:

From the 1870s through the 1920s, much energy and effort was invested in seeking a miracle cure for baldness - to no avail.

Who:

For the most part, these products were meant for men, particularly balding men. One ad guarantees a cure within three to six months.

M20383
© McCord Museum
Book
Beeton's Shilling Medical Dictionary, A Safe Guide for Every Family, 1894
1894, 19th century
Paper
18.1 x 11.9 cm
M20383
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Encouraging self-medication was a major focus of ads for proprietary medicines. But advertisers were not alone in urging individuals to take their health care in hand.

Various doctors and self-styled experts published health guides and family medicine books aimed chiefly at the "keepers of hearth and home." These were much in vogue in the United States and Canada. Formulated in laymen's language, they explained the causes of common ailments, gave remedy recipes and offered tips for maintaining good health. Almanacs, which were very popular in Canada, provided similar information.

By the late 19th century, however, physicians were contesting these publications. Motivated by a desire to expand their monopoly on healing - and occasionally by altruism - they pointed to frequent dosage mistakes in the formulas and denounced the offers of diagnosis by correspondence made by unscrupulous publishers. Some such offers still appear today, but the publishers run the risk of severe penalties.

What:

This medical dictionary defines the symptoms and treatment of ailments and accidents in layman's language. It also contains an emergency guide and remedy formulas.

Where:

Published in London by Ward, Lock & Bowden, this book was distributed in Europe and North America.

When:

From the 1860s on, medical dictionaries for the general public became increasingly popular.

Who:

Designed to enable self-medication, this book was meant for use in the home. The author's aim was to provide families with information on diagnosing illnesses and preparing certain remedies.

M930.50.1.893
© McCord Museum
Engraving
Commercial label of Bowman's Indian Vegetable Pills
John Henry Walker (1831-1899)
1850-1885, 19th century
Ink on paper on supporting paper - Wood engraving
3.7 x 3.7 cm
Gift of David Ross McCord
M930.50.1.893
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

The myth of the Noble Savage, symbol of physical strength and fitness, was often exploited in naming patent remedies. Other selling points included allusions to ancient Native medicinal plant lore and the aura of mystery and magic surrounding the preparation of natural medicines.

The Indian medicine man (shaman) and his myriad healing powers - part skill, part magic - became part of the sales pitch. The exotic primitivism portrayed on this label suggests that the remedy holds the key to nature, power, primal well-being.

References
J. Collin and D. Béliveau, Histoire de la pharmacie au Québec (Montreal: Musée de la pharmacie du Québec, 1994), pp. 138-141.

J. K. Crellin, Home Medicine (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994), pp. 68-69.

What:

Commercial label for a box of pills containing plant extracts; engraving by John Henry Walker.

Where:

The manufacturer, one M. Bowman, was located in Montreal and likely sold on the Canadian market.

When:

This label dates from the latter half of the 19th century. Ads for such products, with their typical imagery, appeared in Canadian newspapers and magazines until the turn of the century.

Who:

Advertising like this was aimed at the general public. The image of the Noble Savage in the wilderness was used to promote the medicinal properties of natural products.

M930.50.1.900
© McCord Museum
Engraving
Commercial label of Devins' Vegetable Pain Killer
John Henry Walker (1831-1899)
1850-1885, 19th century
Ink on paper on supporting paper - Wood engraving
5.5 x 3.7 cm
Gift of Mr. David Ross McCord
M930.50.1.900
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Analgesics, or painkillers, were one of the most popular remedies of the 19th century. They were usually made of an opium or morphine tincture and camphorated spirits, plus plant extracts for flavour and texture.

Compounds of this sort were often touted as ideal for keeping youngsters healthy. So-called children's remedies abounded, many of them strongly laced with alcohol and powerful sedatives.

Soothing syrups were very popular with mothers during the latter half of the 19th century, for a variety of uses. Because of their opiate content, they became a family favourite for calming children or putting them to sleep. This may seem shocking today, but is it really so different from, say, the current excessive use of Ritalin?

References
D. Goulet and G. Rousseau,"L'émergence de l'électrothérapie au Québec, 1890-1910," Bulletin d'histoire de l'électricité (Paris), June 1987, pp. 155-158.

D. Goulet, "La promesse des ceintures électriques : la vigueur retrouvée," Cap-aux-Diamants, Aux pays des hommes forts, spring 2002, pp. 33-37.

What:

Commercial label for a box of pills; engraving by John Henry Walker. In addition to vegetable extracts, these analgesics, or painkillers, contained narcotics.

Where:

Although the manufacturer was located in Montreal, his painkillers were popular not only in Quebec but with Canadians throughout the country.

When:

Analgesics were developed early in the 19th century and remain a favourite remedy today.

Who:

Founded in 1861 by druggist R. Devins, joined by R. Bolton two years later, the Devins & Bolton company produced numerous secret remedies, including Worm Pastilles. The two associates became founding members of the Montreal Chemist Association in 1867.

II-115171
© McCord Museum
Photograph
Electric equipment for Dr. Brown, Montreal, QC, 1896
Wm. Notman & Son
1896, 19th century
Silver salts on glass - Gelatin dry plate process
25 x 20 cm
Purchase from Associated Screen News Ltd.
II-115171
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Therapeutic uses of electricity first emerged in the mid-19th century, but it was not until the 1890s that electrotherapy took hold in Canadian hospitals and small private clinics. Early practitioners had great hopes for the curative powers of this new energy.

Although some benefits were later recognized in the field of physiotherapy, many of the merits then claimed for electricity were grossly exaggerated. Doctors hailed it as a cure for tuberculosis, breast cancer, bronchitis, obesity and diabetes. One electrotherapy advocate maintained that he had treated a neurasthenic patient whose "nervous battery" had been drained by intellectual overwork.

Generally, however, the alleged benefits were limited to the therapy's invigorating, restorative and stimulating effects. Among the panoply of available treatments, one designed for well-off gentleman promised to restore manly vigour through low-voltage electrical stimulation of the genitals. This type of service was in great demand.

References
D. Goulet, "La promesse des ceintures électriques : la vigueur retrouvée," Cap-aux-Diamants, Aux pays des hommes forts, spring 2002, pp. 33-37.

What:

Photograph of a crude electrotherapy appliance. This type of device prefigured the emergence of physiotherapy.

Where:

Pictured here in the private office of a Montreal doctor, this device was normally used in large Canadian hospitals.

When:

The photo dates from 1896 and was clearly meant to introduce an innovation. Electrotherapy was just beginning to take hold in Canada at that time.

Who:

Photographed by the Notman & Son studio, the appliance belonged to Dr. Brown of Montreal.

M973.165.1.1-3
© McCord Museum
Belt
ELECTRO-VIGUEUR
1875-1900, 19th century
9.5 x 24.8 cm
Gift of Mrs. Rose A. Rey and Mrs. Evelyn Rey
M973.165.1.1-3
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Advances in electric technology made it possible to market new medical appliances for consumer use. One of the more popular devices was the electric belt. In the early 1890s, widely read newspapers like La Presse, The Montreal Daily Star and The Toronto Star were peppered with ads for the "doctor designed" Sanden and McLaughlin belts.

Such products were easy to use. Generated by built-in battery cells, the current was conducted by copper wires along the belt to rounded electrodes of aluminium, silver or other metals. The strategically placed electrodes delivered small quantities of electricity to various parts of the body.

Designed principally for a masculine clientele, the belts sometimes came with "accessories for men" that covered the genitals. In an ad in The Toronto Star, one belt manufacturer boasted that he had restored strength and vigour to more than 50,000 people.

References
D. Goulet, "La promesse des ceintures électriques : la vigueur retrouvée," Cap-aux-Diamants, Aux pays des hommes forts, spring 2002, pp. 33-37.

What:

Deluxe electric belt made by "Dr." McLaughlin. The three large "electro-vigour" electrodes were first sheathed in water-soaked chamois leather and then applied to the desired spots.

Where:

"Dr." McLaughlin advertised his belts in the Toronto Star and the Montreal Daily Star. It appears that he sold primarily on the Canadian market.

When:

From 1895 to 1910, the electric belt market was at its peak.

Who:

Judging from the quality of his belt, "Dr." McLaughlin targeted a clientele of well-off English- and French-speaking Canadians.

M996X.2.593.1-7
© McCord Museum
Belt
1886-1900, 19th century
7.3 x 78 cm
M996X.2.593.1-7
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Dr. Sanden (who may or may not have been a licensed physician) marketed his belt chiefly to men suffering from "loss of virility," "weakened organs" or reduced "physical and nervous strength" due to "youthful mistakes or indiscretions" or "excessive maturity." Sanden's ads tended to present the body as a battery in need of constant recharging.

He recommended wearing the belt during sleep. The pleasant current thus delivered to the weakened body parts would restore virility and strength for work; it would develop the vital power of the nerves and muscles, spark courage and self-confidence, stimulate the memory and all organs and brighten the user's gaze. And to top it all off, belt users were promised an "effortless cure."

These claims were based on a mechanical concept of the body: electricity was presented as a form of fuel, while the body was similar to an energy-burning machine. "Electricity, Sanden rhapsodized, "is like oil that soothes the body's tired mechanism, and without which there can be no progress."

References
D. Goulet, Le Commerce des maladies, (Quebec City: Institut québécois de recherche sur la culture, "Edmond De Nevers" series, 1987), pp. 32-36.

Traité élémentaire de matière médicale et guide pratique des soeurs de charité de l'Asile de la Providence (Montreal: Imprimerie de la Providence, 1890), pp. 859, 863-864.

What:

This more modest electric belt was made by the company of M. Sanden, a possibly self-styled doctor. Small batteries in pockets at the back of the belt generated the electrical current.

Where:

"Dr." Sanden saw patients at his office at 132 St. James Street in Montreal. He repeatedly attempted to expand his market to France, but with little success, it seems.

When:

The use of electric belts as a therapeutic remedy was booming between 1895 and 1910. According to his ads, "Dr." Sanden offered treatments Monday through Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Who:

In the late 19th century, the Sanden company was run by W. D. Berry. It catered mainly to middleclass men, offering a suspended accessory for revitalizing their weakened parts.

M930.50.1.287
© McCord Museum
Engraving
Commercial label of Lyman's Genuine Quinine Wine
John Henry Walker (1831-1899)
1850-1885, 19th century
Ink on paper on supporting paper - Wood engraving
6.9 x 7.3 cm
Gift of Mr. David Ross McCord
M930.50.1.287
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Among the remedies marketed to families or prescribed by doctors in Canada, wine was very popular. Its invigorating properties were believed to enrich the blood, fortify bodily functions, combat fever and facilitate menstruation.

Quinine wines, such as Vin Mariani or the one produced by the Trappist monks in Oka, were highly valued by Canadians. These were not beverages but medicinal products, enhanced with stimulants, emetics or narcotics, depending on the desired effect.

Some highly alcoholic (18º to 30°) wines containing extracts of cocaine were served as aperitifs. One very popular drink was laudanum, a wine-based tincture of opium flavoured with cinnamon or cloves.

Quinine wine taken hot with honey was widely used to treat colds and flus and reduce fever. But as doctors cautioned, "in small does, it fortifies; in large doses, it stupefies."

References
D. Goulet, F. Hudon and O. Keel, Histoire de l'Hôpital Notre-Dame de Montréal 1880-1980 (Montreal: Éditions VLB, "Études québécoises" series 1993), p. 223.

Traité élémentaire de matière médicale et guide pratique des soeurs de charité de l'Asile de la Providence (Montreal: Imprimerie de la Providence, 1890), p. 749.

What:

Commercial label for a bottle of quinine wine; engraving by John Henry Walker. The illustration implies that mothers can give this wine to their children.

Where:

The S. J. Lyman company was located at 382-386 St. Paul Street in Montreal for over a century. It expanded its business to the rest of Canada and, by 1947, had offices in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.

When:

Founded in 1800, this company was a major player in the Montreal pharmaceutical industry throughout the 19th century. It continued to operate until the 1950s.

Who:

In the 19th century, S. J. Lyman developed nearly 75 medicinal products. It was also a large distributor of patent remedies with an impressive catalogue of local and imported products.

M992.6.265.1-2
© McCord Museum
Whisky bottle
1890-1900, 19th century
24 x 6 x 6 cm
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Newlands Coburn
M992.6.265.1-2
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Doctors, dentists and surgeons often used the intoxicating properties of alcohol to subdue people undergoing amputation, tooth extraction or surgery. In addition to a stiff shot of spirits, the patient was given a rag soaked with an opium- or morphine-based painkiller to bite on during the procedure.

Even after chloroform and ether anaesthetics were introduced in the 1860s, strong doses of alcohol were prescribed as restoratives for patients who survived such operations.

Whisky was held to have special powers and was widely used as a liniment to relieve sore muscles. Another firm belief was that hair loss could be avoided by repeatedly rubbing the head with cold whisky.

In hospitals and homes, whisky-soaked compresses were commonly used to treat bedsores. In those days, most surgery patients were hospitalized for extended periods.

References
D. Goulet, F. Hudon and O. Keel, Histoire de l'Hôpital Notre-Dame de Montréal 1880-1980, (Montreal: Éditions VLB, "Études québécoises" series 1993), p. 223.

Traité élémentaire de matière médicale et guide pratique des soeurs de charité de l'Asile de la Providence (Montreal: Imprimerie de la Providence, 1890), p. 752.

What:

Four-sided bottle for whisky blanc (pure spirits). Whisky was recognized in the American pharmacopoeia as a medicinal, or officinal, product. It was used as a base in the preparation of numerous remedies.

Where:

Other than as a beverage, whisky was used in hospitals and doctors' offices as a nervous system stimulant and antiseptic.

When:

Whisky was commonly dispensed for medicinal purposes in the latter half of the 19th century.

Who:

This product was marketed by H.-P. Théoret of Montreal. It was popular with drinkers and also used by physicians and, occasionally, surgeons.

M999.70.21.1-2
© McCord Museum
Bottle
Brazill's V O Brandy, F.P.Brazill & Co
1900-1925, 19th century
10 x 7.5 cm
Gift of BCE Inc
M999.70.21.1-2
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Great quantities of cognac and brandy were consumed in 19th-century hospitals. Their tonic properties were well known to quicken the pulse and prevent cardiac arrest during surgery. For several days after the operation, patients were given brandy dosed with opium or morphine, depending on the type of procedure.

In domestic use, cognac was very popular as a stimulant and fortifier. Some advocates claimed that a daily shot of cognac prevented disease. For vomiting, steaming hot brandy compresses were applied to the stomach and back. Brandy was also said to be effective in treating depression and ulcers.

For people with cholera, some doctors prescribed a teaspoon of brandy every hour. For tuberculosis, then widespread in urban areas, the same dose was recommended before each meal. To restore the strength of convalescents, the prescription was one to two spoonfuls of brandy in a large glass of cold sugar water.

References
Traité élémentaire de matière médicale et guide pratique des soeurs de charité de l'Asile de la Providence (Montreal: Imprimerie de la Providence, 1890), pp. 211-212.

What:

Brandy bottle. Brandy was enjoyed as a digestive stimulant, but it was also used for medicinal purposes.

Where:

A popular drink in homes, restaurants and bars, brandy was widely used in Canadian hospitals.

When:

Until the early 20th century, brandy was frequently prescribed by doctors and surgeons and commonly dispensed in Canadian hospitals.

Who:

Brandy was highly valued for reviving post-operative patients and reinvigorating convalescents. It was also recommended as a stomach stimulant for people with typhoid fever, diarrhea or cholera.

M930.50.5.485
© McCord Museum
Engraving
Commercial label of Lager Beer, G. Reinhardt & Sons
John Henry Walker (1831-1899)
1850-1885, 19th century
Ink on paper on supporting paper - Wood engraving
6.3 x 8.3 cm
Gift from David Ross McCord
M930.50.5.485
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Hops, spruce and ginger beers were favourite drinks in Canada and also served as remedies for specific ailments. Excellent tonics, appetite stimulants and digestive aids, they were used in poultices as well. For certain types of abscess, the treatment was a slice of bread soaked in cold beer and wrapped in a cloth.

Some people were not satisfied with the natural benefits of these beverages and laced them with narcotics. The ideal cure for melancholy, for instance, was said to be a few drops of opium in a glass of chilled beer.

References
Traité élémentaire de matière médicale et guide pratique des soeurs de charité de l'Asile de la Providence (Montreal: Imprimerie de la Providence, 1890), 1493 p.

D. Goulet, F. Hudon and O. Keel, Histoire de l'Hôpital Notre-Dame de Montréal 1880-1980, (Montreal: Éditions VLB, "Études québécoises" series 1993), pp. 221-222.

What:

Commercial beer label; engraving by John Henry Walker. Beer was favoured for its nutritive and tonic qualities.

Where:

Beer was sometimes prescribed in Canadian hospitals and asylums. It was believed to accelerate post-operative convalescence and calm fits of delirium.

When:

The medicinal properties of beer have been recognized for over a thousand years. This label was for a lager, or light beer, brewed in Montreal.

Who:

The beer advertised here was brewed by G. Reinhardt & Sons. As a therapeutic agent, beer was used mainly to help convalescents recover more quickly.

PERS-05
This artefact belongs to : Private collection
Book
Traité élémentaire de matière médicale
1890, 19th century
Paper
PERS-05
This artefact belongs to : Private collection

Keys to History:

In 19th-century Quebec hospital dispensaries, medicines were often prepared by nursing sisters called "apothecary nuns". Each summer, according to a long-standing tradition, they grew gardens of medicinal herbs that served as their ingredients.

The medical book pictured here contains the formulas for the preparations used in daily patient care. The apothecary nuns also consulted it in filling doctors' prescriptions.

It classifies most of the remedies then in use, describes the procedures for making them and gives the dosage and formulas. It also presents the principal illnesses and their specific treatments.

Like many religious communities, the Sisters of Charity of the Institute of Providence had a nose for business and offered patent medicines for sale. Several of their secret remedies were distributed on the North American market, including a tonic, a purgative tea, a stomachic wine and a spruce gum syrup.

What:

A practical guide to remedy preparation. In addition to medicinal formulas from European and American books, it contains secret recipes for remedies made by the Sisters of Charity.

Where:

Published in Montreal, it was used mainly by the Sisters of Charity in Quebec hospital dispensaries and asylums. It was also used in some French-Canadian families.

When:

First published in 1869, it was reprinted without change the following year. The copy seen here is a revised and corrected version published in 1890.

Who:

Dedicated to Msgr. Bourget, under whose auspices the Sisters of Charity of Providence community was founded, this guide was written in part by the nuns in cooperation with several Montreal professors of medicine. Many of the texts were simply translated from British or American publications.

M19004.A-B
© McCord Museum
Jar
About 1860, 19th century
Earthenware
19.5 x 17.5 cm
Gift of Byers
M19004.A-B
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

The products prepared in pharmacies were stored in glazed earthenware, porcelain, glass or clay jars. Some were richly decorated, like the one seen here, and most of them were imported from Europe.

Each jar was designed for a specific product, such as arsenic, hashish, cannabis, morphine, opium, turpentine, or camphor. Some contained more peculiar substances now rarely seen in industrialized countries: sow bug powder, crayfish eyes, caribou horn oil, rattlesnake venom, etc.

Today, these objets d'art are collectors items that bear witness to the importance of the pharmacy in past centuries.

References
J. Collin and D. Béliveau, Histoire de la pharmacie au Québec (Montreal: Musée de la pharmacie du Québec, 1994), pp. 99-103.

What:

This ceramic pharmacy jar is richly decorated. As the lettering indicates, it was meant to hold only iron carbonate, a mineral also called siderite.

Where:

Although the exact provenance of this jar cannot be determined, it was likely imported from Europe. Most pharmacy jars of this sort used in Canada were locally made or European imports.

When:

Glazed earthenware and porcelain jars were widely used in Canada in the 18th century and much of the 19th. Around 1870, pharmacists began using less costly jars of heavy glass.

Who:

Apothecaries, apothecary nuns, druggists and pharmacists working in dispensaries were the principal users of pharmacy jars.

MP-1989.15.81
© McCord Museum
Photograph
H. F. Jackson Drugstore, Ste. Catherine St., Montreal, QC, 1895
Anonyme - Anonymous
About 1895, 19th century
Silver salts on paper mounted on paper - Gelatin silver process
20 x 25 cm
Gift of Mrs. Isherwood
MP-1989.15.81
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

The storefront of H. J. Jackson, druggist and chemist, is typical of the shops that offered patent remedies for sale. The sign at the left proclaims that the proprietor is not only an agent for Gray's famous red spruce gum syrup for fighting coughs and colds, but also the inventor of Jackson's antibilious treatment for liver ailments.

City drugstores carried all sorts of articles besides medicines, including garden seeds, dyes, perfumes and toiletries. Many also featured a soda fountain. And as photography grew in popularity, some druggists sold cameras and the various chemicals used in photo development.

This was the beginning of the shift towards today's large drugstore chains and their endless array of products.

What:

Photo of the H. F. Jackson drugstore (photographer unknown). Note the advertisements for proprietary medicines made by Canadian druggist-chemists.

Where:

Located on St. Catherine Street in Montreal, this apparently thriving drugstore is a good example of how important the patent remedy trade had become.

When:

In the late 19th century, many druggists expanded and diversified their business to include a soda fountain, beauty products, gardening items and a slew of other things.

Who:

H. F. Jackson, like other druggists, prepared prescription medicines and sold readymade remedies. And like many of his colleagues, he manufactured and sold his own secret-formula medications.

M930.50.3.123
© McCord Museum
Engraving
W. D. McLaren, Grocery
John Henry Walker (1831-1899)
1850-1885, 19th century
Ink on paper on supporting paper - Wood engraving
6.1 x 8.9 cm
Gift from David Ross McCord
M930.50.3.123
© McCord Museum

Keys to History:

Beginning in the mid-1800s, more and more pharmacists diversified their business to compete with other merchants. But the competition worked both ways.

Grocers were eating into the pharmacy trade with a host of patent remedies and medicinal wines. Quinine and coca wines were the biggest sellers.

In rural areas, especially those without pharmacies, therapeutic products were available over the counter at the general store, which stocked groceries, hardware and drugs. Prescription medicines were sold by the village doctor, who either made them up or purchased them from manufacturers.

There was also the peddler, an itinerant druggist of sorts, whose village visits were announced from the pulpit by the pastor or priest. His assorted secret remedies were much in demand. Peddlers often traveled as a team with a bonesetter, who specialized in reducing fractures and dislocations. These excruciatingly painful treatments earned the bonesetter a reputation as a bogeyman, immortalized in Quebec legend as the terrifying "Bonhomme sept heures" (transliteration of "bonesetter").

What:

This engraved illustration by John Henry Walker, dating to the late 1900s, depicts the front of a Montreal grocery store.

Where:

Some Montreal groceries carried patent remedy products for over-the-counter sale, but the practice was more widespread in small towns and villages.

When:

In the latter half of the 19th century, the medicine business in rural areas was not yet controlled by licensed pharmacists.

Who:

The owner of this grocery store was W. D. McLaren. At the time, grocers, shop owners and general store operators made deals with various companies to promote their remedies.

Conclusion:

In the latter half of the 19th century, most of the available therapeutic products were designed to alleviate vague, persistent ailments such as digestive troubles and fatigue. However, some remedy makers claimed to cure cholera, tuberculosis and other life-threatening diseases.

The regular consumption of various nostrums presented a health risk. Consumers sometimes got more than they bargained for, since many products, including children's medications, contained narcotics and high concentrations of alcohol. Such were the times!

The everyday pharmacopoeia used by most doctors and druggists in the 19th century was composed of palliative, rather than curative, remedies with a high opium, morphine, cocaine or alcohol content. With this initial growth phase of the proprietary medicine market, harbinger of the major pharmaceutical concerns we know today, the "illness industry" was off to a running start.


© Musée McCord Museum