In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries people of Fort Worth, like all Americans, coughed, sneezed, wheezed, winced, groaned, and limped their way through a world rife with disease. There were major diseases: cholera, smallpox, typhus, typhoid fever, yellow fever. There were minor diseases (with names that sound quaint to us today): lumbago, chilblains, catarrh, consumption, ague, dropsy, costiveness, scurvy, biliousness, la grippe, scrofula, salt rheum, goiter, St. Vitus dance.
A family’s primary physician often was Doctor Mom, who “dosed” her family members with home remedies handed down from Doctor Grandma. When Doctor Mom had exhausted home remedies, she turned to the modern medicine of her day. But the modern medicine of her day was far from the modern medicine of our day. Pasteur had devised his germ theory only in 1861. Rontgen would not produce and detect the x-ray until 1895. Alexander Fleming would not discover penicillin until 1928.
Worse, the medical industry was largely unregulated. Congress would not enact the Pure Food and Drug Act until 1906, and the impact of that act was neither immediate nor dramatic. The lack of understanding of disease, the lack of regulation of the medical industry, and the lack of sophistication of the public combined to create a perfect Petri dish in which the patent medicine industry incubated and thrived.
Patent medicines were purported cure-alls that required no prescription, were sold over the counter or by mail. Patent medicines usually were not patented at all. They were trademarked and their ingredients kept secret by their makers (and for good reason). The patent medicine industry was Big Pharma of the era, selling millions of dollars’ worth of potions, powders, and pills, spending far more on advertising than on research. Most patent medicines were worthless (and some were downright dangerous), giving spoonfuls of false hope to both hypochondriacs and people with real ailments.
These are typical ads for patent medicines. To patent medicine makers the kidneys were favorite bad boys of the abdomen. Weak kidneys were blamed for a veritable medley of maladies. For example, Prickly Ash Bitters ads claimed that the kidneys were the cause of trouble from the top of the head to the sole of the feet, including sluggish brain, bad breath, and feverishness in the feet.
Patent medicines fell into three main categories:
- Those marketed without regard to gender. (See links at bottom.)
- Those marketed to men, exploiting “lost manhood.”
- Those marketed to women, exploiting “female weakness.”
Regarding the third category, one way to subjugate a group—without physical force—is to convince members of that group that they are weak. Women during the tyranny of patent medicines were the “weaker sex.” Men believed it. Women believed it. And as the weaker sex, our culture told us, women needed to be protected—by men (naturally). But for women the status of “protected” brought with it the status of second-class citizenship. For example, women, whether married, single, or divorced, could not obtain credit as easily as men could. Women could not attend most Ivy League colleges, vote, serve on a jury, get an abortion, enter into contracts, or sue in court.
And women, as second-class citizens, as people who needed to be protected, were, by definition, vulnerable. And vulnerable people can be exploited.
Patent medicine companies—largely owned and operated by . . . wait for it . . . men—sensed that vulnerability.
And it came to pass that the patent medicine term female weakness was born.
The term female weakness in reference to gynecology had been in use since at least 1795 and appeared in patent medicine marketing in the early nineteenth century.
The exact genesis of the “female weakness” marketing campaign is lost in the mists of time. Perhaps one day a patent medicine huckster whose medical training consisted of having a doctor’s diagram of the female anatomy tacked on the wall of his office was staring at the diagram when he suddenly leaned forward and squinted at all those internal doodads and thingamajigs.
“By Jove, that’s a mighty complicated plumbing system that women got themselves.”
He was right, of course. Any plumbing system capable of producing the miracle of birth is going to be complicated, especially when compared with the simple plumbing system of men, a working model of which countless high school science fair contestants have built using a grout bag, a check valve, four feet of copper tubing, and a spigot (total cost: $17 at Home Depot).
After our huckster had stared at the anatomy diagram a while, he probably exclaimed: “Eureka! They’s gold in them thar ovaries!”
And so it was that patent medicine companies began to market medicines specifically for “female weakness.”
Suddenly every physical complaint that a woman had between the navel and the knees was “female weakness.” In fact, most every complaint of mind and body that a woman had was caused by female weakness.
Feeling nervous? Not sleeping well? Tired? Easily upset? Headaches? Backaches? Side aches? Fainting and dizzy spells? Gloomy and despondent? No interest in life?
You guessed it: Madam, you suffer from . . . [reverberation:] female weakness!
“From earliest womanhood to serene old age,” this ad reads, “Bradfield’s Female Regulator may be depended upon to rectify the numerous weaknesses and irregularities peculiar to women.”
Dr. Josiah Bradfield was a druggist in Georgia who made and sold patent medicines.
Oh, and by the way, his Bradfield’s Female Regulator was 15 percent alcohol.
This ad from 1894 is an early example of celebrity endorsement: Della Fox (1870-1913) was a singing stage comedienne.
Paine’s Celery Compound “has saved thousands of women from nervous prostration. It has made the weak strong.” Don’t care for celery? Relax. You won’t taste it: The compound was 19 percent alcohol.
“My health broke down with troubles peculiar to women, my nervous system was shattered,” said Mrs. C. F. Faderks. But then she took a few swigs of Hood’s Sarsaparilla—18 percent alcohol.
Are you detecting a pattern here? You bet your swizzle stick: Most of the tonics promising to cure female weakness contained alcohol in double-digit percentages.
This ad for Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription probably should have read “cures ‘female weakness’ and kindred afflictions.”
Mrs. William Hoover, bless her heart, had suffered from “female weakness.” But then, she testified, “I took eight bottles” of Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription. “I now feel entirely well,” she says. And no wonder: Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription is said to have contained both alcohol and opium.
“For the relief of the many weaknesses and complaints peculiar to females.”
Dr. Ray Vaughn Pierce, a physician and mail-order pharmacist, also operated Dr. Pierce’s Invalids’ Hotel and Surgical Institute in Buffalo, New York. In 1902 Etta Place and the Sundance Kid supposedly interrupted their stay in Argentina to check into the institute.
Said Dr. Pierce of his Favorite Prescription: “It makes weak women strong and sick women well. It cures nervousness, backache, headache, sleeplessness, mental anxiety, despondency and other maladies which are but the consequence of disease of the delicate womanly organism.”
In 1893 The Era Formulary, 5000 Formulas for Druggists, a book instructing pharmacists how to compound commercial medicines, provided this “recipe” for Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription: “Savin 150 grains. Cinchona 150 grains. Agaric 75 grains. Cinnamon 75 grains. Water, enough to make a decoction of 8 fluid ounces. Acacia 150 grains. Sugar 75 grains. Tincture digitalis 1/2 fl. dram. Tincture opium 1/2 fl. dram. Oil star anise 8 drops. Alcohol 2 fl. ounces.”
Because a grain is tiny (traditionally the equivalent of a seed of cereal), and even a dram is only one-tenth of a fluid ounce, each bottle was essentially eight ounces of water and two ounces of alcohol: 25 percent.
In 1903 Ladies Home Journal published an expose claiming that an independent lab analysis had determined that Favorite Prescription’s “all-botanical” ingredients included digitalis, opium, and alcohol.
Dr. Pierce sued the magazine for $200,000, claiming the expose was libelous. He insisted that Favorite Prescription had never contained alcohol, opium, or digitalis.
So, the Journal again analyzed hundreds of bottles of Favorite Prescription but this time found no opium or alcohol or digitalis. Squeaky clean. The court ruled for Dr. Pierce: The Journal paid up $16,000. Of course, some researchers later claimed that Dr. Pierce had simply discontinued inclusion of alcohol, opium, and digitalis in Favorite Prescription after the Journal made its original analysis and before the Journal published its expose.
Incidentally, Dr. Pierce was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives but had to resign at the age of forty because of “ill health.”
“Women are oftentimes weak, gloomy and despondent,” moans this ad. “Women can avoid all this suffering by taking Warner’s Safe Cure.” In 1914 the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that one analysis of Warner’s Safe Cure found it to be 90 percent alcohol. During that era of temperance, patent medicines containing alcohol were a discreet way for people—especially women—to wet their whistle.
(The word Safe was a pun: Hulbert Harrington Warner had made his first million selling safes. A safe was embossed on every bottle of his patent medicines.)
In 1909 the American Medical Association reported that Mme. Yale’s Excelsior Fruitcura claimed to be “primarily ‘Woman’s Tonic,’ a cure for every ill to which she is sexually heir from Infancy to Old Age. It is Nature’s prompt omnipotent Restorative.”
Mme. Yale’s Excelsior Fruitcura was mostly water and sugar with 16.6 percent alcohol.
Leopold Gerstle operated his Gerstle Medicine Company in Bluff City, Tennessee. “G.F.P.” stood for “Gerstle’s Female Panacea.”
Gerstle’s Female Panacea was 16 percent alcohol.
This Star-Telegram ad of 1926 was targeted directly at Fort Worth readers. Miss Iona Sprinkle of 2217 Rosen Avenue on the North Side said: “I suffered so much from pains in my sides and back that I was all weak and run-down.” The Gerstle Medicine Company said: “In nine cases out of ten, these embarrassing troubles are a sure indication that a girl is being attacked by that dreaded malady, Catarrh [inflammation] of the Female Organs.”
My search of the censuses and city directories of the 1920s found no Iona Sprinkle in Fort Worth. There was a 2217 Rosen Avenue, but Iona didn’t live there in 1926.
In 1918 the federal government had found the Gerstle Medicine Company guilty of making false claims for its Gerstle’s Female Panacea. The company was fined $37.50 ($600 today).
Gerstle Medicine Company evolved into St. Joseph (yes, that aspirin) Medicine Company.
Ernest Linwood Andrew had worked for Leopold Gerstle. Then Andrew went out on his own and set up a patent medicine mill in Bristol, Tennessee to make Andrew’s Wine of Life Root (A Female Regulator).
“The homes of this country are filled with women whose trials utterly destroy the joys of existence.”
Hey, 14 percent alcohol can ease those trials, at least temporarily.
In 1918 the federal government found the panacea claims of Andrew’s Manufacturing Company for Wine of Life Root to be “false and fraudulent.” The company was fined $50 ($800 today).
By the beginning of the twentieth century concerns about the efficacy and even the safety of patent medicines were increasing. This cover of a Collier’s magazine was published in 1905: “palatable poison for the poor . . . Women are led to injure themselves for life by reading in the papers about the meaning of backache.”
In 1906 the federal Pure Food and Drug Act banned the manufacture and sale of adulterated, misbranded, poisonous, or deleterious foods, medicines, and liquors. For the first time, makers of patent medicines had to list on a product’s label ingredients that were “addictive” and/or “dangerous” (for example, alcohol, morphine, opium, and cannabis).
Also for the first time, women—many of whom were teetotalers and some of whom were members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union—who took patent medicines for female weakness discovered that the medicine they had been guzzling was a distant cousin of Demon Rum.
And remember that the era of prohibition from 1920 to 1933 constitutionally banned the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages. Ah, but patent medicine was not a beverage.
Therein was a loophole you could drive a beer truck through.
In fact, the Pabst brewing company had already driven a beer truck through that loophole: Pabst got its Pabst Extract classified by the government as a medicine: “The United States Government specifically classifies Pabst Extract as an article of medicine—not an alcoholic beverage.” (Pabst Extract was 5 percent alcohol, which is the alcohol content of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer today.) Pabst then marketed the tonic to husbands as a way to pep up their tired wives: “Every husband has faced this same problem: returning home at night to find his wife all tired out, nervous, irritable, unhappy.”
Pabst also marketed its Extract to mothers-to-be: “Pabst Extract is the best tonic . . . to help the anaemic, the convalescent and the nervous wreck—to prepare for happy, healthy motherhood.”
A Pabst ad in Harper’s Magazine in 1915 called Pabst Extract “concentrated liquid food” and “a boon to nursing mothers.” “Its beneficent action is soon apparent in the cheeks of the little one.”
Early in the twentieth century Fort Worth had its own patent medicineman. Dr. William A. Link sold his “Female Regulator for weak, sickly girls at puberty, nervous, broken-down women and women at the climacteric [menopause].”
People at that time were fascinated by x-rays, which Rontgen had discovered only in 1895. Dr. Link claimed that his wondrous new gizmo, a “Violet Ray Bath Cabinet: light machine, X-Ray machine, electric wall plate, vibrator and Nebulizer,” was good for, among other ailments, “female troubles.”
“Dr. Link’s Female Regulator is what all women need.” This ad shows a contraption that might have been Dr. Link’s wondrous new x-ray gizmo.
(Dr. Link went to prison in 1914 for performing an abortion.)
Lydia Estes Pinkham was an anomaly: a woman patent medicine maker (and shrewd promoter), although her creation, Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, was on the market only seven years before she died in 1883.
Wrote one mother in praise of Pinkham’s compound: “I always took it before my babies were born and I know it gave me strength to keep up and do my work.”
Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound was 20 percent alcohol.
Before the Pure Food and Drug Act prohibited falsifying on labels, Lydia Pinkham’s was labeled “A Sure Cure for Falling of the Womb and All Female Weakness.” After the act was passed, the “sure cure” claim disappeared.
And then there was Wine of Cardui. Raved Mrs. W. C. Bridgman: “I grew weak and pale. . . . I was very nervous. The least little thing upset me terribly. The cause of my trouble was female weakness. . . . I soon found out what the real merits of Cardui are, for after a few months I was entirely well and able to enjoy life.”
Wine of Cardui, too, was 20 percent alcohol.
In 1914 the Journal of the American Medical Association quoted a Wine of Cardui ad: “What a husband needs is a well-sexed woman—a woman with health, strength, capacity for sharing with him, in a womanly way, life’s duties, responsibilities, and enjoyments. . . . Are you a victim to any of the many forms of diseases peculiar to women?”
At least twice in the early twentieth century the American Medical Association tried to educate the public about patent medicines marketed to women: in 1915 in “Female-Weakness” Cures and Allied Frauds and in 1921 in Nostrums and Quackery.
“Female-Weakness” Cures and Allied Frauds called Wine of Cardui a “vicious fraud” that “contains 20 percent alcohol” and “no other drugs in amount sufficient to give any medicinal effect. . . . The stuff is an outrageous fraud on the women of the country.”
And then came the predictable. In the 1920s, after patent medicine hucksters had been telling women for years that all their ailments were caused by female weakness, one company decided to set itself apart from the others by going back to an oldie but a goodie: Yes, the kidneys were once again the bad boys of the abdomen.
“Not ‘female trouble’ but a kidney disorder,” Liquid Shumake told women in 1926. “Thousands of women have suffered for years believing they are victims of some female weakness when a proper kidney and bladder treatment like Liquid Shumake can relieve them of their tortures.”
Fast-forward to today. The world remains imperfect, but patent medicines are largely a thing of the past, and women have the rights they were denied when (mostly) male hucksters came up with patent medicine’s “female weakness” campaign in the nineteenth century.
Why, today women even can drink alcohol without stigma:
Woman 1: “Hey, Barkeep. Another round for the ladies. . . . Ladies, a toast to the mind of the male.”
Woman 2: “Hear, hear! And to his simple plumbing.”
Woman 3: “To his grout bag.”
Woman 4: “And his check valve.”
Woman 5: “And his copper tubing.”
Woman 6: “And his spigot.”
Woman 7: “Who’s up for a trip to Home Depot? Hic.”
More on patent medicines: