Lisa Plumley Talks Traveling Medicine Shows

One of the things I like best about writing for a living is that it gives me an opportunity to learn about all kinds of amazing things. While researching background material for stories, I learn about history, social mores, technologies old and new, interesting careers, cool settings…pretty much, the sky’s the limit (unless you actually want to say “the sky’s the limit” in an 1880s western romance–that saying didn’t come into popular use until 1920).

My next Harlequin Historicals release, “Marriage at Morrow Creek” in the Hallowe’en Husbands anthology, is set in and around a traveling medicine show in 1884.


Here’s a link to the video if you’d like to watch it: 

I *love* the idea of a traveling medicine show! I’ve wanted to write a story with that setting for a while now…and I think I might return to it someday. Anyway, I found out some nifty things about medicine shows, some of which play right into the stereotype of patent medicine quackery and others that you might find surprising. Here goes…

* Tonics, elixirs, and other patent medicines typically sold at medicine shows often contained between five and fifty-five percent alcohol (usually whiskey), but were used by people of all ages and walks of life, including women, children, and followers of the temperance movement. The most famous of these cure-alls, Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, contained approximately 18% alcohol “as a solvent and preservative.”

* Patent medicine shows began around 1860 in America and enjoyed large audiences in most areas they stopped in. The shows typically opened with banjo or piano music, then proceeded with variety acts, minstrel skits, and sing-alongs, followed by the medicine man’s sales pitch. This cycle continued until the crowd thinned out; promising more entertainment after the sales period kept audience members in their seats. Other popular medicine show attractions included sword swallowers, fire eaters, tumblers, fortunetellers, flea circuses, magicians, strongmen, and buxom female singers.

* Most medicine shows and nostrum producers provided their audiences with informative almanacs or pamphlets to build and maintain their customer bases. These publications included popular features such as astronomy columns, information about the phases of the moon, cartoons, jokes, advice to farmers and housewives, and more.

* Less scrupulous medicine show proprietors filled salve boxes with axle grease or mixed powdered herbs in hotel bathtubs. Some remedies consisted of nothing more than artificially colored and flavored water. A few contained ingredients that were dangerous, including morphine and cocaine, but most were harmless. Some were even effective, especially those based on ancient herbal remedies.

* Snake oil, or shéyòu, is a genuine item. It’s still used as an anti-inflammatory pain reliever in China and may owe its efficacy to its high prostaglandin content.

* Lydia Pinkham® Herbal Compound is still sold today as a source of “nutritional support for women.” Other remedies a time-traveling medicine show attendee might recognize today include wrinkle erasing treatments, miracle pills that block fat absorption, creams that evaporate cellulite, lotions that stop hair loss, magnetic shoe insoles, male “enlargement” supplements, and laser “zit zappers.”

So the next time you reach for a nutritional supplement, brush on some “revolutionary” micronized mineral makeup, chug the latest “energy” drink, or browse the offerings at QVC, take a minute to consider the traveling medicine shows of the Old West. It’s possible that the more things change…the more they stay the same! (But be careful using that phrase in your historical romance–it didn’t come into use until novelist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr said “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” in his satirical journal, Les Guêpes in 1849.)

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Lisa Plumley is the USA Today bestselling author of more than two dozen contemporary and historical romances. Her latest book, Let’s Misbehave, was named one of Booklist magazine’s Top Ten Romances of 2007, earned a 4-1/2 star Top Pick! rating from Romantic Times, and was a finalist for the Booksellers Best Award in the mainstream/single title category. She’s excited to have two new books on the shelves this month: Home for the Holidays (Zebra) and Hallowe’en Husbands (Harlequin Historicals).

You can find her on MySpace (, or Facebook

Drop by her blog ( or visit her Web site ( to read first-chapter excerpts from any of her books, sign up for new-book reminder e-mails, download the reader newsletter, and more!

One lucky commenter today will receive the autographed set of Lisa’s Morrow Creek Matchmakers trilogy that includes The Matchmaker, The Scoundrel, and The Rascal plus a copy of the UK edition of The Drifter. Good luck to all!

Click on the cover to order from Amazon!   

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38 thoughts on “Lisa Plumley Talks Traveling Medicine Shows”

  1. Hi Lisa!
    A traveling medicine show sounds like a lot of fun! I thought worrying about wrinkles started recently. It never occurred to me that women were paying for wrinkle creams over a hundred years ago.

  2. Good morning Lisa! Great seeing you here at the P & P blog!
    Your blog reminds me of shows like “Little House on the Prairie” and “Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman.” Each of these shows had a traveling medicine show and talked about the different creams, lotions, etc. “Hallowe’en Husbands” has an awesome book cover! I’ve enjoyed all of your books and can’t wait to read this one as well.

  3. Wonderful information about traveling medicine shows. I had to laugh to think they had “male enlargement” supplements and fat blockers and wrinkle creams. Apparently our ancestors worried about a lot of the same things we do nowadays!

  4. Hi Lisa, that’s neat on the traveling medicine shows, I love this info you’re never too old to learn. thanks

  5. Very interesting article! I am glad that I don’t have to rely on the medicines and miracle creams that they sold back then.

  6. Hi Lisa,

    Welcome back to P&P! We’re always happy to have you. You write some interesting blogs.

    Traveling Medicine shows were a big part of the old West. I like how they provided entertainment for the settlers who didn’t get a chance very often to see something like the shows they put on.

    Hope you have a great day!

  7. Hi Lisa, great post. I love hearing about the traveling medicine shows. I will bet that doing research for a historical book is a fasinating thing to do. I love to read historical books, love history. Thanks for joining us at the Pistols today.

  8. Hi Lisa! Wonderful post! It’s fascinating to learn about the traveling medicine shows. Thank you for sharing with us today!

  9. Hi everyone! Thanks SO much for having me here today. I’ve really been looking forward to visiting.

    Maureen, you’re right! From reading women’s historical journals and ladies’ publications, etc., I’ve found that we share a lot of concerns with the women of the past (and not just avoiding wrinkles!). I guess it’s really true that people are just people, right?

    Hi Kathleen! I *loved* those shows. I’ve been hooked on Americana for a long time. And thanks for those kind words about Hallowe’en Husbands too. I think that cover is perfect. I feel very lucky to be joining such talented authors as Denise and Christine for this book.

    Hi Taryn! I know, isn’t it funny? Thanks for commenting.

    Penney, that’s what I think. That’s part of the reason I’m so interested in doing research. Plus, the things I learned in school about history weren’t necessarily the most interesting parts (at least for me). So it’s nice to discover new things now — and I get to choose the topics!

    Hi Cheryl. Me too! LOL.

    Linda, thanks very much for having me here. That’s one of the things that struck me too — what a big event it would be for isolated settlers and townspeople to have a little entertainment. It’s no wonder traveling medicine shows were popular.

    Hi Pamela! Thanks. That’s so nice of you.

    It’s nice to see you here, Quilt Lady! Thanks for your note. I love history too, especially when it comes to learning how people lived in past times. Battles and treaties…not as much!

    Hello, Margie! Oh, you’re sweet. Thanks so much. I was worried about being too wordy, but I didn’t want to leave anything out. I’m happy you enjoyed it.

  10. Neat post! Sometimes your mind can convince you of anything and I would guess that the colored water probably cured some people, too. lol

    I like the video of Halloween Husbands. Looks like a good story to read in between the knocks at the door on Halloween night.

  11. Isn’t it amazing how much things have changed. It seems like they didn’t have much “real” medicine but drugs/alcohol mascarading as medicine – at least it helped the pain but I hear they got hooked on some of those elixors. Thank goodness for home remedies – bet the wives and mothers knew more about medicine lol.

  12. Traveling medicine shows… I am sure that it was very exciting to folks back then… something new to see and hear about in their neck of the woods…
    Great post thanks for sharing!!! 😀

  13. Hi Lisa. Good to see you here. I bet traveling medicines were interesting. Love the cover of Hallowe’en Husbands.

  14. Hi Lisa! You make a good point about paying attention to historical references and sayings, keeping in mind when they were first introduced. Like “the sky’s the limit” and “the more things change the more they stay the same”. It’s so important to pay attention to the continuity of the time period, and get the historical references correct!

    As a reader, I don’t think about that, but I will notice discrepancies sometimes. A lot of times, that just puts a pall over the whole story.

    Interesting blog! Have a great day.

  15. Loved the information. I can remember my grandparents talking about the home remedies and using many of them. Since they were born in the late 1800’s perhaps they even saw a traveling medicine show.

  16. Hi Kammie! Yes, I think you’re right. Even today, the placebo effect is a real thing. I hope you’ll give Hallowe’en Husbands a try on Halloween night! I think it’s a great collection of stories.

    Thanks, Jeanne! I have an antique book from the early 1880s in my collection, and it’s chock full of home remedies and instructions for treating illnesses. It’s really interesting. And some of those remedies have been proven now too.

    Hello Colleen! No kidding — if I’d been living in an Old West town, I think I would have attended the traveling medicine shows too…for the novelty, if nothing else. They sound like a real hoot!

    Hi Crystal! Thanks. I’d say the cover of Hallowe’en Husbands is just about perfect. It definitely sets the tone for a spookier read! I was thrilled when my editor sent it to me.

    Hey, Lisa! It’s nice to see you here. It always seems to be the little things that throw me off when it comes to historical research. As they say, it’s what you don’t know you don’t know that gets you!

  17. The traveling medicine shows would have been a very interesting and entertaining part of this time period, but I’m glad of modern medicine.


  18. Hi Lisa an welcome,as a retired nurse I have heard all the stories of ole tyme medicine,an believe or not a lot of it did work to some degree,think,they didnt have anything else to go by,so they had to try something,whether it was just luck that they survived,I believe that some of it did work,who knows,a lot of them survived to tell the tale,thanks

  19. Cool post, Lisa! How funny–for some reason, I never made the connection that snake oil was something that the Chinese had for real (I am, and have seen a bunch of interesting herbal and other remedies…) Of course, it doesn’t surprise me now that you’ve clarified that! They’ve got all kinds of potions made from all kinds of things!

  20. Cod liver oil was one of my mother’s best friends
    back in our childhood! The quickest way to get the
    bunch of us to disappear was to say it’s time for a
    dose! Talk about yucky stuff! Cod liver oil has
    had a long life in the medicinal world!

    Pat Cochran

  21. I really enjoyed reading all the little facts you shared today. The history of traveling medicine shows is facinating. Thanks for sharing!

  22. Hi Lisa! Thanks for the great information on traveling medicine shows. I loved reading it! Your cover for Hallowe’en Husbands is so awesome! It looks like it would be a perfect Halloween read!

  23. How fun to get in the middle of the traveling medicine shows, in the stories I mean. I think sometimes the tonics actually did some good, though may have made more feel better than actually hit the problem in the head. How exciting to learn about the set. After seeing the picture, I’d recognize the books anywhere. Thanks.

  24. Hi Tanya! Thanks! That’s very generous of you. I hope you get a chance to check out Hallowe’en Husbands.

    Hello, Estella! I’m happy the info about traveling medicine shows was interesting for you.

    Deidre, I agree. I’m very grateful for all the medical advances we have these days!

    Hi Vickie! That’s so interesting. I guess you’ve got to work with what you have, right?

    Hey, Fedora! I know, I thought the same thing! It does make sense though. Even these days, people take fish oil supplements for Omega 3 fatty acids. So I guess what’s old is new again!

    Hello Pat! Yes, when I found out about the snake oil, it instantly made me think of cod liver oil. I’ll bet it works in a similar way…but I’m certainly not keen to try it!

    Hello, Kim! Thanks for your very nice comments. I really appreciate that.

    Debbie, thanks! I was very honored to be asked to write a story for Hallowe’en Husbands — and a little surprised too, because my editor specifically asked me for an Old West ghost story, and my books are usually not the least bit spooky or paranormal. But I had a really great time with Rose’s and Will’s story!

    Thanks again, everyone, for the warm welcome! Have a wonderful weekend!

    Lisa 🙂

  25. Hello Lisa,
    i loved your post. i think the medicine man shows would have been a hoot back then, but then again you would have been swayed to try alot of flavored alcohol too. Of course, we do buy our fare share of miracle remdies don’t we, joint sprays that completely eliminate pain, and of course our ever expanding miracle diet rip-offs. ours re just more techno=advanced aren;t they.
    your books sound great, i can’t wait to read one.

  26. Love this information. Home remedies was my grandmothers thing, some of them even worked. I sure do miss her a lot

    Anyone out there have a home remedy for hot flashes(lol)

  27. Hi Lisa! Welcome to P&P. 🙂 Halloween Husbands sounds sooo good. Congratulations on that — you’re breaking new ground in the novella dept. I hope Harlequin continues with Halloween stories.

    That’s very interesting info on traveling medicine shows. Scary, eh? Although as a writer, must’ve been very interesting to research.

    Great post!

  28. Originally from Wisconsin, so I loved the picture from Black River Falls! It must have been an extremely hard life traveling great distances, weather concerns, outlaws & Indians. I’m sure that these products brought a lot of hope along with each purchase.
    My paternal grandfather was a GP in the early 1900’s I wonder how many doctor’s purchased some of these remedies for their patients. So much was unknown at that time!

  29. Lisa, I was away from the computer yesterday, so I’m a day late in welcoming you to Petticoats & Pistols! Yee-haw! I’m thrilled you’re here!

    Loved the blog! Medicine shows fascinate me, too! In fact, my first book with Harlequin, THE MERCENARY’S KISS, is based on a medicine show and a curiously magic elixir!

    Loved the video, too! 🙂 Great idea to have three time periods in the same anthology!

  30. Home remedy for hot flashes? Take that sweater off!
    (chuckle) Give it some of what no one has nowadays: time. Ooops, that’s two.

  31. Thank you, Lisa, for such a great post about traveling medicine shows! They must have provided a welcome distraction for all the hard-working settlers. They must have also provided a hope for the settlers that they would be cured from whatever ailed them. Such an interesting piece of history.

  32. Hi Jody! Thank you so much! You’re so sweet. And you’re right — people did have their share of miracle remedies. Just like today, there was usual a very rational-sounding “scientific” explanation for their “success” too.

    Hello, Sherry! Aww, I’m sorry about your grandmother. When I was small, my grandmother’s miracle cure was Vick’s VapoRub for a cold. It really worked though!

    Hey, Kate! How are you? Yes, I’m really psyched about the Halloween anthology, and I hope there are more in the future from HH. It’s my understanding that folks in the UK don’t celebrate Halloween, so I don’t imagine Hallowe’en Husbands will ever become a Mills & Boon release, but I feel lucky to be breaking new ground with Christine and Denise. Go HH! Linda Fildew was brilliant to come up with the anthology idea.

    Hi Vickie! Thanks! You’re right. Even in more modern times, people gave narcotic cough medicines (containing codeine, for instance) to children. I recently read that for children, the best remedy for a cough is a spoonful of honey! So those old home remedies are here again.

    Hello Laurie! No kidding? That’s cool. As far as I can tell from my research, a lot of doctors and pharmacists purchased patent remedies to dispense to their patients/customers. Some of them were very accepted treatments.

    Hi Pam C! How are you? Thanks for the welcome. And Denise gets *all* the credit for the Hallowe’en Husbands video — it was her creativity and hard work that made it happen. My hat’s off to her.

    Pam W, hi! And thanks for stopping by. LOL. You’re too funny.

    Hi Pan! Thanks a million. I think you’re right. There’s always something fascinating to learn about when it comes to history.

    THANKS again, everyone, for being so wonderful! You’ve definitely made my visit to P&P a fun one.

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