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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q9GD9rfFTAs
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).
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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!