Do you feel fatigued or suffer from poor nerves? Guaranteed relief from feminine afflictions! Is your baby fretful? Well, look no further! During the 19th century, these sorts of appeals were the bait to catch consumers suffering from anything from headaches to hot flashes to unwanted pregnancy. The unregulated “patent medicine” industry was big business. While some remedies may have helped people, many concoctions were at best a waste of money, and at worst addictive or lethal. Our new installation at the Center for Women’s History, Female Remedies, explores the world of these patent medicines in the years before the passage of the Food and Drug Act of 1906.
The term “patent medicine” originated with a legal arrangement to protect private formulas, but the term came to mean any packaged remedy available over the counter. The lucrative industry was stingy with ingredient labeling and free with promises of easy health in a bottle. Sophisticated advertisements targeted women in particular, who tended to be responsible for family shopping and health care, but were also taught they were weak and naturally prone to health problems. They were therefore offered “female strengthening cordials” and nerve tonics to address “feminine complaints.”
Why were these potions so successful? Well, people believed they worked — and many consumers had become addicted. Some formulations had roots in older remedies and may have had some effect. Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, marketed as a cure for “for all those painful complaints and weaknesses so common to our best female population,” contained botanicals such as fenugreek, which has anti-inflammatory properties, and black cohosh, used by some women today as an alternative to hormone therapy for symptoms of menopause. However, many patent medicines owed their popularity to ingredients such as cocaine and morphine. Even if they didn’t contain narcotics, most formulas relied on high percentages of alcohol. One critic claimed that gullible customers would spend $75 million in a year purchasing fraudulent remedies which contained “an appalling amount of opiates and narcotics.” Even if this number was exaggerated, it illustrates people’s desperation to cure their ills and their dependency on the drugs and alcohol.
Cocaine may have pepped up tired customers, but the rolicking sales of patent medicines were also helped by sophisticated advertisements. Colorful trade cards, free calendars and almanacs, and booklets full of testimonials targeted women with gendered messages about women’s “weak constitutions,” reproductive mysteries, and threats to children’s health. An advertisement for Burdock’s Blood Bitters told women that as a “grand system-renovating tonic” it was the best cure for “chronic diseases common to their sex.” Mothers hesitating to buy Dr. E.R. Jackson’s Cholera Specific were asked “why wait until the dread disease shows its blight upon some flower of your little flock?” The makers of Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup handed out baby-naming books, calendars, and cards with pretty babies to develop name recognition and win consumer trust. Cards for the syrup showed smiling mothers and bouncing babies, and a pamphlet insisted that “it is UNNATURAL for a child to be feverish, cross and irritable.” Faced with social disapproval, a miserable baby, fear of worsening illness, and several other children to care for, wouldn’t you try it?
That same pamphlet for Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, published around 1875, insisted that the formula contained no alcohol or narcotics. But the dangerous and addictive ingredients in many of these products were exposed when the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed by Congress in 1906. That legislation is frequently credited to uproar and disgust after the publication of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which exposed the horrific conditions in Chicago’s meat processing industry. But public support for regulating drugs was also fostered by the growing power of temperance activists, who hoped to reduce the consumption of alcohol, and the American Medical Association, which sought regulation of the sale and use of drugs and medicine. Moreover, journalist Samuel Hopkins Adams had exposed fraudulent claims in a series of articles published in Collier’s Weekly, including a nifty infographic comparing the percentage of alcohol in popular medicine brands to alcoholic drinks.
Another popular class of “female remedies” were officially known as emmenagogues, which stimulate pelvic and uterine blood flow and can bring on menstruation. These may well have been used for that purpose — and likewise could be used as abortifacients. Historian Leslie Reagan describes how women in the 18th and early 19th century who faced an unwanted pregnancy first tried to induce an early abortion at home using abortifacient plants like tansy and pennyroyal and then, if that didn’t work, sought more help. Over time, as more people lived in cities, far from those plants, women turned to commercial pills and powders that contained — or claimed to contain — the same ingredients as those used in the rural past. This of course presented a business opportunity. Anne Lohman, aka Madame Restell, became the wealthiest woman in New York selling “preventative powders” and “female monthly pills.” If that didn’t work, Restell offered surgical abortions, ran a boarding house for women to give birth, and arranged adoptions. An 1840 lawsuit against Restell mentioned that her medicine included oil of tansy, a plant used as an emmenagogue.
The packaging and advertising for these pills used carefully worded language that danced around their purpose. An advertisement for Dr. Vandenburgh’s Female Renovating Pills claimed the product was “an effectual remedy in all cases where the operations of nature are impeded, or languidly performed.” Some advertisements warned that they should not be used if the consumer was pregnant. A tiny pamphlet for Dr. Martel’s French Female Pills asked “What ailment can so worry a suffering woman more than to have her menstruations painful, irregular or suppressed?” The pamphlet suggests that the pills could be used to “prevent irregularities,” and may have been intended as a form of birth control as well as an abortifacient. The pamphlet continues with “Dr. Martel’s French Female Pills are the safest, surest and most reliable emmenagogue; they strengthen and build up the uterine functions, thereby relieving anxiety and making the lives of suffering women more pleasurable and enjoyable in every way (emphasis in original).
This coded language was necessary because in addition to being sold by druggists, the abortifacient pills were available by mail order. This exposed them to prosecution under the Comstock Act of 1873, which forbade the sale of “articles of immoral use” through the postal service. This was the law that allowed Anthony Comstock himself to bring down Madame Restell and was later used to shut down Margaret Sanger’s birth control column in the socialist newspaper The Call. Working-class women would have been affected by this legislation more than wealthier women, who could access personal doctors. The AMA also pushed to prosecute those advertising, selling and using abortifacients.
We believe there is not a state in the Union which has not adopted laws against it, but in spite of this, these preparations, in thin disguise, are shamelessly advertised in newspapers and shamelessly and boldly sold over the counters of many drug stores. While it is true that many of these nostrums are merely fraudulent, rather than dangerous, yet not a few contain potent and — for the purpose for which sold — villainous drugs.
What was worse in the minds of these doctors — that the pills were fake, or that they might do what they promised? A 1917 chemical analysis as part of a Pure Food and Drug Act investigation found Dr. Martel’s French Female Pills to contain ingredients such as licorice and a trace of strychnine, but nothing that would work as a “remedy for disturbances of the menstrual functions.” So much for that lauded safety and reliability. The penalty for this “misbranding”? French Drug of Newark, New Jersey was fined five dollars.
– Sarah Gordon, Center for Women’s History
Top Photo Credits: Detail of Bona Dea, For All Female Complaints pill packet, 1880-1900. New-York Historical Society Library, Bella C. Landauer Collection.