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Made in Minnesota: Patent Medicine on the Prairie

Primary Source Set
by Greta Bahnemann, Metadata Librarian, Minnesota Digital Library, Minitex

Throughout the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, Americans were inundated with myriad medicinal treatments collectively known as patent medicine. At a time when doctors and medical clinics were less common, especially in rural areas, patent medicines promised relief from pain and chronic conditions when few other options existed. The term “patent medicine” referred to ingredients that had been granted a government patent; but ironically many purveyors of patent medicine did not register their concoctions with the government. As a result, many competitors offered similar formulas and freely imitated each other’s products.

The story of patent medicine is multi-layered. It is about the phenomenon of Americans self-medicating with opiates, alcohol, and herbal supplements, as well as women’s health and healthcare options. It follows the evolution of advertising in America and the rise of chromolithography printing techniques and newspaper advertisements. Finally, patent medicine reveals dubious scientific knowledge during a time when germ theory was in its infancy.

Many states became regional hubs for patent medicine production. A number of companies were based in Ohio, including Samuel Hartman’s Peruna Drug Manufacturing Company. Massachusetts was the home base for both Dr. Ayer and the Lydia Pinkham Medical Company. Minnesota was also part of this phenomenon. Home to the nationally-known J. R. Watkins Company, Minnesota also boasted a number of other producers, including Mark's Medical Company located in Fosston and the smaller Fluid-d’Or Company of Hibbing, Minnesota. Together these and other start-up companies helped to put Minnesota on the patent medicine map and contributed to the young state's growing economy.

This Primary Source Set is a companion to the online exhibition at the Digital Public Library of America.

Discussion Questions & Activities

1. What different kinds of products are included in the general term "Patent Medicine"? 

2. Who were the intended consumers of these products? 

3. How similar or different do you think Patent Medicines are to contemporary products like dietary supplements and weight loss products? 

4. What responsibilities do companies have to their consumers to be honest about a product's benefits or side effects? What if a product contains an ingredient that can be addictive (such as opium or alcohol)? 

5. Working in pairs or small groups, have students look at advertisements for modern products that make dubious claims and promises. These products could include dietary supplements, weight loss remedies, hair loss cures, exercise and fitness equipment, etc. Ask students to research and discuss the concept of "truth in advertising." What do these products promise? What do these products deliver? 

eLibrary Minnesota Resources (for Minnesota residents)

1. Advertisement for “Complete Female Remedy” Patent Medicine SYNOPSIS: Dr. Kilmer &..." American Eras: Primary Sources. Ed. Rebecca Parks. Vol. 1: Development of the Industrial United States, 1878-1899. Detroit: Gale, 2013. Student Resources in Context. Web. 17 Aug. 2016. 

2. Aronson, Jeff. "Patent medicines and secret remedies.British Medical Journal 19 Dec. 2009: 1394+.Academic Search Premier. Web. 17 Aug. 2016.

3. "Lydia E. Pinkham.Britannica School. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 21 Apr. 2008. Accessed 17 Aug. 2016.

Additional Resources for Research

1. "Balm of America: Patent Medicine Collection." The National Museum of American History. Accessed 17 Aug. 2016. 

2. Bingham, A. Walker. The Snake-oil Syndrome: Patent Medicine Advertising. Hanover, Mass.:Christopher Publishing House, 1994.

3. Carson, Gerald. One for a Man, Two for a Horse: A Pictorial History, Grave and Comic, of Patent Medicines. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961.

4. Cook, James Graham. Remedies and Rackets: The Truth about Patent Medicines Today. New York: Arno Press, 1976.

5. Eskew, Garnett Laidlaw. Guinea Pigs and Bugbears. Chicago: Research Press, 1938.

6. Hechtlinger, Adelaide. The Great Patent Medicine Era; or, Without Benefit of Doctor. New York: Galahad Books, 1974.

7. "History of Patent Medicine." Hagley Museum and Library. Accessed 17 Aug. 2016.

8. Morell, Peter. Poisons, Potions and Profits: The Antidote to Radio Advertising. New York: Knight Publishers, Inc., 1937.

9. Nostrums and Quackery; Articles on the Nostrum Evil and Quackery Reprinted, with Additions and Modifications, from the Journal of the American Medical Association. Chicago: American Medical Association Press, 1912.

10. Shaw, Robert Byers. History of the Comstock Patent Medicine Business and Dr. Morse's Indian Root Pills. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1972.

Think Like a Historian

Observe a Primary Source Item and Record Your Thoughts

  • What is happening in the photograph or letter, diary, etc.? What just happened, or what is about to happen?
  • Describe the people you see in the image. How do they relate to each other and to the photographer? If there are no people in the image, what is the subject of the photograph?
  • Describe where the photo was taken. Were they inside, outside, somewhere identifiable? Was the location an urban area, suburban, or rural? 
  • Look for details that show when the photo was taken – time of day, season, and year. Do the people in the photograph look different than people today? How are their clothing, shoes, and hair styles different? Also look for differences in things like transportation, housing, equipment, and general infrastructure.

Think about the Creator, Audience, Context, Relationships

  • What is the author/creator's point of view? What was the author's purpose?
  • Who is the intended audience for this primary source material?
  • Explain how the source tells its story.
  • What was happening locally, regionally, or nationally when this primary source material was created?
  • How does this item relate to other content in this Primary Source Set and/or the rest of the Minnesota Digital Library collection? Compare and contrast two resources.

Finally, using the clues you have observed, try to figure out why the source was created. By asking these questions, you have begun to understand the what, who, where, when and why of the primary source material – and ultimately, the story it tells.

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