The Razzle Dazzle of the Medicine Show

 I’ve always been fascinated by the Medicine Shows that traveled the old west, and the charlatans who sold their magic medicines.
“Razzle-dazzle! Fast music and flashy color that made the blood zing, out there in the cornfields. ‘ Come on folks, Im going to give you the chance of a lifetime! I offer you this miraculous medicine that – ‘”

So starts a non-fiction book fittingly entitled “Medicine Show – Conning People and Making them Like it,” by Mary Calhoun. I used some of the details from this and other sources in one of my westerns, “Wanted.” The heroine and her brother were the off-spring of a medicine show family.  Well, everyone thought so.

For nearly a century, traveling medicine shows were a colorful part of the American life with their fast talking salesmen, their creatively named remedies and the varied entertainments that attracted the crowds. From 1850s until the 1940’s, medicine selling troupes moved from town to town, first in wagons, much later in trucks, all of the vehicles brightly painted to capture attention.

But medicine shows were not an American invention. Throughout the centuries, European Medicine shows consisted of a “doctor” selling his wares on city streets with the assistance of two or three hired musicians, clowns or acrobats, but the traveling medicine show developed in America.

In the early 1800s, medical care was very limited. Trained doctors were few – in 1775, only 400 of them held university medical degrees. Some didn’t go to medical school at all but apprenticed to an established doctor for four years. Some medical schools offered only two six-week terms before setting their students loose on an unsuspecting public. One prominent Philadelphia doctor prescribed horseback riding as a cure for tubercular patients because it was believed that the smell of horses was good for weak lungs. No one knew what cancer was or how to treat it. And only large towns had apothecary shops that sold the known medicines of the time.

So why not wonder medicines? Since colonial times, patent medicines had been offered for sale by individuals.   There was no regulation until the early 1900s.  

Although the medicine show started as small entrepreneur businesses, others saw it as big business. Two giants, the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company and Hamlin’s Wizard oil Company, saw the possibilities.   They established medicine factories in the east and dispatched up to thirty troupes apiece to sell their products by entertaining small town America. 

Many of the “medicines” were touted as Indian tonics – “Nature’s Gift to Nature’s Children.” White men posed as Indian doctors. The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company advertised its bottles of Indian Sagwa as an Indian remedy composed of the “virtues of roots, herbs, barks, gums and leaves.”

The advertising bills added that the concoction “was the purest, safest and most effectual cathartic medicine know to the public. The sciences of medicine and chemistry have never produced so valuable a remedy, nor one so potent to cure all diseases arising from impure blood.”

The price: $1 or $5 a bottle, a fortune back then.

Although the small one-wagon show continued to operate with its own homemade remedies, the trend was toward several wagons and as many as a dozen men and women who doubled as musicians and actors. After the 1880s, many of the shows featured Indians.

When the troupe arrived at a cross-roads or a town, they all started the same. First came the ballyhoo, the come-on. It might be a parade if there were several wagons, and if not, a dancing dog or a beautiful girl in a Chinese gown. The show began with music and laughter to warm up the crowd – musicians playing lively tunes, comedians telling jokes. The talent often included dancing girls, comedy sketches, even entire plays.

Then the “doctor” took over, giving a health lecture and selling his tonics and salves, pills and liniments. The “doctors” often had as creative names as their medicines: Brother Jonathon, Princess Lotus Blossom, Doctor Punja, and Silk Hat Harry.

And they had their own recipes. Brother Jonathon, mixed his Giver of Life compound in a large wooden tub. Going on the assumption that water is a gift of life, he mixed a tonic that was three fourths water. Other ingredients included Epsom salts, burnt sugar, powdered rhubarb, licorice powder and wintergreen essence.

Then there was a salve called Tiger Fat made of petroleum jelly, camphor, menthol crystals, oil of eucalyptus, turpentine and oil of wintergreen.

Vital Sparks – “God’s Gift to Men,” was made with small hard black candy, water, and a few powdered aloes. I leave its purpose to your imagination.

Some were harmful and contained cocaine or were so strong in alcohol that they masked symptoms in people desperately ill. But the medicine show doctors seldom sold medicines that contained dangerous drugs. Most pitch doctors specialized in concoctions of vegetables or mineral salts. They wanted to come back, and dead patients wouldn’t be good for them.

One ironic fact: the high alcoholic content of the popular invigorating tonics probably did produce a temporary feeling of well-being. Many of the Temperance ladies may have taken their daily doses of medicine without realizing they had broken their pledges never to touch alcohol. Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compounds for women was dissolved in 21 percent alcohol.

The better drugs did work on occasion. Some of the Indian remedies did have healing properties. And the liniments, salves and tonics were often effective if used simply to massage sore muscles, sooth irritated skin and some were harmless purgatives. It was enough to bring testimonials from the locals, and repeat business.

“And partly,” according to “Medicine Show,” “the farmer opened his wallet and bought the medicine because the entertainment of the medicine show, the razzle dazzle in the cornfield, WAS a medicine, a balm to the spirit.”

Any of you see some great heroines and rascally heroes or villains here?



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14 thoughts on “The Razzle Dazzle of the Medicine Show”

  1. I love this, Pat. It reminds me of Janet Dean’s recent book, Courting the Doctor’s Daughter which starts with a medicine show and the Doctor’s Daughter confronts the charlatan-who isn’t what he seems. Of course love is in the air. 😀

  2. Wonderful post, Pat. My mind keeps making these weird connections. Remember the old comic strip Lil Abner and their cure-all medicine, called Kickapoo Joy Juice? Hey, sounds like it could have been the real thing.
    As for the rest of those medicines, anybody who lived to a ripe old age must’ve been just plain lucky!

  3. Great post, Pat. I remember an episode of Dr. Quinn where a traveling medicine show came to town, complete with ‘kickapoo’ Indians – who’d been hired from the local Cheyenne reservation. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know how often some of those herbal cures worked – and how many temperance ladies got a little tipsy from their daily tonic!

  4. Excellent and entertaining post, Pat. I think the first time I can remember “seeing” a medicine show was on Wizard of Oz. And of course, the one in Oklahoma.

    “Vital Sparks – “God’s Gift to Men,” was made with small hard black candy, water, and a few powdered aloes” If the “small hard black candy” was licorice, this might actually have worked–some, anyway. Licorice is a natural stimulant.

  5. Hi Pat, what a terrific post. I did know about the high alcoholic content of most “medicines” LOL. Kinda reminds me of Lucy Ricardo’s stint with Vitameatavegamin.

    Thanks, Pat. oxoxoxoxox

  6. Hi Pat,

    This is an exciting post. I have never been to a medicine show.

    This reminds me of my of my friends mom talking about seeing these shows.

    Thanks for sharing
    Walk in harmony,

  7. In a way I don’t think it’s that much different. Now we watch commercials (some are quite entertaining) and I question the necessity of a lot of the drugs that they are pushing.

  8. I just love the image of a temperance meeting full of tipsy ladies who’d just taken their morning tonic. In fact, I think I’ll use it in the current work in progress.

  9. Entertaining post. Jonesborough, TN has an annual National Storytelling Festival every Oct. and the Medicine show wagon has been a staple. It is parked in front of the Storytelling Center and the site of scheduled old time shows as well as tellers who want to show their stuff. It gives a little take of what things were like.

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