“Last night I felt very bad I have been sick now six weeks I have Docterd myself as well as I could and taken Jaynes medisons,” wrote Pamelia Fergus to her husband, James, who was away in Montana searching for gold. With nary a doctor in Little Falls in 1860 (they had all gone the way of James), Pamelia was on her own when a medical crisis arose.

Companies producing prescription medicines were quick to capitalize on this lack of medical care. Dr. D. Jayne & Son of Philadelphia was one such company and is the one to which Pamelia refers. Dr. D. Jayne and other prescription companies produced elegant pamphlets and placed large newspaper advertisements during the late 1800s and early 1900s in order to sell their pills, liniments and tonics. These ads were most often aimed at women. As in the present time, companies selling medicines in this earlier era knew that the woman of the household was more inclined to seek cures to her family’s health ailments than the man of the household. Prescription companies were careful to disguise this public relations fact through advertisements that boldly told women how fragile and ill they were. One ad for Doctor Pierce’s Favorite Prescription promises to make a woman “as jolly a wife as she was a maid” by “re-establishing the health of the delicate womanly organs.” This theme of making women more desirable to their mates by building their frail minds and bodies is played out repeatedly within the advertisements. As an ad for Bradfield’s Female Regulator states, “Cupid does not like sickly girls. His arrows pass them by.”

Men were not completely ignored by these prescription advertisements, but male illness was addressed as a temporary setback in the physical body, as opposed to a permanent mental condition suffered by women. Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery ads appeal to a man’s sense of science and logic by stating that illness is caused by “countless minute organisms leagued against the health of the body.”

Prescription companies eagerly extolled the virtues of their products and were swift to assure customers that their cures were efficacious. According to an ad for F. J. Cheney & Co. of Toledo, Ohio, “Hall’s Catarrh Cure is not a quack medicine.” Dr. D. Jayne was quite honest in his sales pamphlet when he wrote, “I do not pretend to assert that they are ‘CURE ALLS,’ nor that they are . . . absolutely infallible.” {italics his}

So, how effective were these medicines for the ills of life? The primary method companies used to prove that their medicines worked was to provide testimonials from satisfied customers. Sometimes the testimonials were published within the advertisements, as in the case of Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound. Judging by the number of testimonials seen in some of Ms. Pinkham’s full-page ads, scores of women were cured of such ailments as organic inflammation, nervous prostration, painful periods and other feminine disorders. In an ad for Doan’s Kidney Pills, the Foster-Millburn Company of Buffalo, New York went so far as to find someone from Little Falls to provide a testimonial for its product.

In the world of hard science, however, testimonials do not prove the efficacy of a medication. Each of the key constituents of a prescription needs to be analyzed to see if the desired effect will be produced. Due to the competition, however, very few of the prescription companies were willing to divulge the ingredients in their cures. An advertisement for Mull’s Lightning Pain Killer was amenable to disclosing that it did not “contain opiates, ammonia or capiscum (sic),” so that it was “safe for children or invalids.” The non-ingredient “capiscum” is actually capsicum or cayenne which can be used as a local pain-killer, but it’s not difficult to see that it would be irritating to children and invalids.

An ad for Hood’s Sarsaparilla doesn’t claim any specific benefits other than to say that it “would purify and enrich the blood.” According to The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants, “sarsaparilla is anti-inflammatory and cleansing” and aids the body in a variety of ailments “such as eczema, psoriasis, and itchiness,” and “rheumatism, rheumatoid arthritis, and gout.” It seems that Hood’s Sarsaparilla lives up to its claims, as long as it doesn’t contain some deleterious ingredient not mentioned.

Foley’s Honey and Tar cure for colds leads one to wonder how tar can possibly help a cold. On the other hand, Bucklen’s Arnica Salve is highly likely to cure “piles, injuries, inflammation, and all bodily eruptions.” Arnica is a plant that is used externally “for bruises, sprains, and muscle pain” and “is anti-inflammatory and increases the rate of reabsorbtion of internal bleeding.” Taken internally, arnica is poisonous, unless it is homeopathically prepared. Hopefully, users of the arnica salve knew this fact before the cure caused them bodily harm.

In searching through the prescription medicine advertisements of the past, one is struck by the sense that sorting the “cures” from the “snake oil” was as much a concern to previous generations as it is to the present one. In the search for perfect health, it is best to read medical ads and their testimonials with a wary eye and not be too worried about what Cupid thinks.

by Mary Warner
Copyright 1997, Morrison County Historical Society



“The Gold Rush Widows of Little Falls” by Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith, 1990.
“The Encyclopedia of Medicinal Plants” by Andrew Chevallier, 1996.
“Dr. D. Jayne’s Medical Almanac and Guide to Health” pamphlet, 1901.
Ads were found in the October through November 1900 issues of the Little Falls Daily Transcript.

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