Attention: open in a new window. PrintE-mail

Patent Medicines & Miracle Cures

Original Documents from the Archives of the New York City Bar

September 2011

Patent medicines promising “miracle cures” were widely popular during the 19th and early 20th centuries.  According to a 1905 article in Colliers,“The Great American Fraud,” American consumers were spending more than seventy-five million dollars a year on patent medicines by the turn of the century.  Since there were no restrictions on advertising or labeling, and manufacturers kept their ingredients a secret, these “quack" medicines and nostrums often proved to be deadly mixtures. Cocaine, opium and alcohol were active ingredients in many of the most popular patent medicines. Other products being marketed to an eager public were essentially useless mixtures of herbal ingredients based on cultural superstitions and beliefs. Consumer products were also introduced that used the power of electromagnetism to cure everything from baldness to the lack of vitality in men.  Effective mass advertising in almanacs, magazines and newspapers helped fuel the growth of this industry and gave birth to direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical marketing.

In 1906, the Federal Pure Food and Drug Act was enacted, prohibiting interstate commerce of adulterated and misbranded food and drugs.  This led most manufacturers to remove narcotics from their products and curtail some of their fraudulent business practices.  The New York City Bar has a fascinating collection of advertisements extolling the virtues of patent medicines and their miracle cures.



During the 19th century, New York was home to some of the nation's leading breweries, including Schaeffer, Ruppert and Liebmann.  Most breweries were located in Brooklyn neighborhoods with the highest concentration of German immigrants.  Liebmann's Brewery was established in 1860 and became famous for making Rheingold beer.  In 1896, in an effort to expand its business, Liebmann's promoted a new miracle cure, Teutonic, which claimed to aid nursing mothers and those suffering from insomnia and dyspepsia.  Teutonic was a concentrated liquid extract of malt and hops containing a much higher alcohol content than most beers.  The success of Teutonic led to similar tonics being offered by Pabst and Anheuser-Busch.



pabst-1 maltnutrine




Dr. Holman's Pad Company

holmans pad

Dr. George W. Holman was the inventor of the Holman's Fever, Ague and Liver Pad.  Holman's Pad claimed to be the only true cure for, and preventative of, malaria, jaundice, dyspepsia, rheumatism, yellow fever, and sea‑sickness.  Holman touted that more than 100,000 people had been cured.  Dr. Holman also offered Spleen Belts, Abdominal Pads, Pectoral Pads and Absorptive Medicinal Foot Plasters for cold feet, headaches and sluggish circulation.




 Magic Foot Pads

  magic foot


Magic Foot Drafts originated in Jackson, Michigan in 1902.  They were large and very sticky plasters that you were supposed to put on the sole of your foot, where they would somehow, by magic, draw out uric acid through the skin. The plaster was made of oilcloth coated with a mixture of pine tar, cornmeal and poke-root.  Samuel Hopkins Adams wrote in his expose, The Great American Fraud, "Of course, they might well as be affixed to a barn door, so far as any uric acid extraction is concerned."  




Dr. Young's Peptopads


Dr. Young's "Peptopads," also hailed from Jackson, Michigan.  During Congressional hearings for the Pure Food and Drug Act, the ads for Peptopads were called misleading for “carrying the impression that the digestive ferment pepsin plays an active part in the cure."  Even were pepsin present it was noted that it would have "no effect when administered by the pad."





Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup

mrs_winslowMrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup was first marketed in 1849 as an indispensable aid to mothers to help soothe babies' pain and discomfort while teething. Advertisements claimed Mrs. Winslow was an experienced nurse and that the syrup had "magical effects and medical virtues." Mrs. Winslow’s contained one grain of morphine per fluid ounce, sodium carbonate, spirits foeniculi, and aqua ammonia.  Mrs. winslow_2Winslow’s had one of the most effective marketing campaigns, using various media to promote the product, including recipe books, calendars, and trading cards. The American Medical Association in a publication called "Nostrums And Quackery" sharply criticized Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup in a section called "Baby Killers."  Those children who did not overdose often became addicted to morphine or suffered from malnutrition.  The syrup was finally banned for sale in the U.S. in 1906 but was not withdrawn from sale in the UK until 1930.



marmolaAdvertised as "harmless little tablets" that could cure obesity without "unwelcome dieting" or violent exercise, Marmola was one of the most popular diet drugs in the early 20th century. Marmola contained desiccated animal thyroid, which often led to hypothyroid conditions including nervousness, insomnia, irregular heartbeat and muscle weakness. When postal authorities threatened the Marmola Company with fraud in 1926, the owner, Edward Hayes, submitted an affidavit promising to end company operations. However, he reopened the business under the name Raladam Company. For the next twenty years, the Raladam Company was involved in litigation for false and misleading advertising.




Herculex Body Battery

herculexThe development of electrical technology in the late 19th century fascinated the public with the mysterious powers of electric and magnetic fields.  Many “doctors” started to promote devices that promised to give men new strength, power and energy without using drugs.  These devices also claimed to relieve pain, enhance sleep and cure a wide variety of diseases, including purifying the blood and eliminating germs.  One of the most popular devices was Dr. Alfred Sanden’s Herculex Body Battery.  Instructions for the device directed consumers to wear the belt around your waist at night to allow the electric currents to impart “new strength” and “native vitality” by acting on wasted energy.  The advertisements would specifically target working class men with claims that “every big business man does not one tenth as much actual hard work as you do, but his income is 100 percent greater.”   A similar product, Williams Medical Batteries, promised to cure paralysis, neuralgia and constipation as well as promote hair growth.





The Electro-Chemical Ring

electro ring

W.G. Brownson introduced the Electro-Chemical Ring in 1892.  He claimed that acid in the blood caused a host of medical conditions including asthma, diabetes, epilepsy and cancer.  Brownson advertised that deposits acummulated on the ring was proof of the curative effects of a reaction with acid in the blood.  Testing by the Department of Commerce concluded that the ring was made of commercial iron and that no medical benefits were derived from wearing the ring.  The government issued a fraud order against Brownson in 1914, but he continued to peddle his ring for a few more years under different brand names.  Ionized bracelets, sold via infomercials, have been cited over the last few years by the FTC for deceptive advertising practices and  false claims. Despite no scientific evidence many of these bracelets still remain on the market.



The Magno-Electric Vitalizer

edison_vitalizerCapitalizing on his famous father’s inventions, the estranged son of Thomas Edison started his own business in the late 1800's. The company’s most successful product was a medical device called the Magno-Electric Vitalizer that used a combination of batteries and magnets that claimed to cure "locomotor ataxia, paralysis, rheumatism, nervous prostration and indigestion."  In 1904 the government shut down the company for fraud, relying in part on an affidavit from the senior Thomas Edison doubting his son’s ability to "make any invention or discovery of merit." The New York Times reported that Thomas Edison Jr. denied any involvement with the company except to lend his name for promoting these inventions in order to escape from under a mountain of debt and a bad marriage.  Thomas Edison Jr. would later succumb to alcoholism and mental illness.


M.S. Borden's Fatoff

The American public has been searching for a miracle cure for obesity for at least a century.  M.S. Bordens' Fatoff was one of the leading beauty products in the early 20th century to promote weight loss without dieting and exercise.  In its patent filing no mention was made of Fatoff's "remarkable ability to help reduce the waist line," or "double chin," found in its extensive advertising.  Government analysis of Fatoff indicated that the product was nothing more than soap and water.  In 1914 the Indiana State Board of Health declared that Fatoff, which sold for $1.50 a jar, was essentially a "soft soap" and the value of its ingredients were a "mere five cents."











Dr. Charles Flesh Food


 For a product designed to enhance the beauty of early twentieth-century women, Dr. Charles might have chosen a better name than one which now sounds more appropriate for a zombie movie.  Dr. Charles claimed his product could "develop the immature bust," and "remove wrinkles from the face and hands, no matter how deep the furrow."  In a 1915 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, "flesh food" was found to be "no better than, if as good as, an ointment made by mixing five parts of vaseline with four parts of starch and adding a dab of zinc oxide."


Kellogg's Sanitone Wafers

Frank J. Kellogg, was a shrewd businessman, who took full advantage of his famous last name despite bearing no relationship to his noteworthy namesakes.  Kellogg began marketing an anti-fat product called Rengo in 1902.  He would soon find great success in a new produkellogg_1ct called, Kellogg’s Sanitone Wafers, promising to cure men of “muddled brains” and revive “every nerve in your body.”  For women, the Sanitone Wafers, would get rid of the “blues” and banish headaches, backaches and sleeplessness. All of his products were dispensed on the medical mail-order plan.  A free sample would be mailed, with an additional, unsolicited 30-day supply and a request for $5.00.  If you sent the money, you were placed on a perpetual monthly mailing of product and invoices.  If you didn't respond to the initial request, Kellogg bombarded you with an aggressive series of threatening letters for non-payment.  Analysis of a sample of Rengo by the AMA found that the anti-fat formula was a combination of thyroid, poke weed, cascara, acacia, and toasted bread.  When taken in the doses recommended by Professor Kellogg it could also cause hypertension, cardiac arrest, and stroke. Analysis of a sample of "Sanitone Wafers" by the federal chemists showed them to contain, salts of iron and chromium, a laxative plant extractive, red pepper and a trace of strychnin.  In 1921 Kellogg was ordered by the District Court in Tennessee to cease marketing and destroy his inventory.  


Antikamnia Tablets

antikamniaAntikamnia tablets were first marketed in St. Louis as a "proudly ethical drug."  They were used as a treatment for fever, headaches, sour stomachs, nervousness and "the blues."  Unlike most patent medicines, Antikamnia was not sold directly to the consumer, but advertised heavily in medical journals to doctors.  Antikamnia claimed to be a coal-tar derivative but chemical analysis revealed that the primary ingredient was antanilide, a toxic metabolite of acetphenetidin.  Antikamnia was mixed with codeine or quinine to enhance its pain relieving effects.  Acetphenetidin is now recognized as causing birth defects and impaired fertility when consumed during pregnancy.  In 1907 the California State Journal of Medicine published the article, Poisoning by Antikamnia.  The Antikamnia Chemical Company  was prosecuted in 1914 for failing to disclose the source of the active ingredients on it's packaging (231 U.S. 654).


Thacher Magnetic Shield Company


Thacher's Magnetic Shields did not claim to heal rheumatism, kidney and liver problems by drawing out uric acid in the body.  Instead, C.J. Thacher advertised that by sewing his magnetic pads into any piece of clothing it would have the "irresistible, penetrating power of magnetism to rout disease at any point."  In one interview Thacher claimed his product could cure paralysis and insanity.  Samuel Hopkins Adams called Thacher, "The King of Quackdom."




Richard Tuske, Director of the Library

A special thank you to Katherine Epanchin-Butac for her research assistance and help in preparing this exhibit.