Are your eyes (and waist) still bulging from your Thanksgiving feast?
Put on a little weight?
Caught a sniffle from the crew sitting at the kids’ table?
Got a case of the holiday blues?

100 years ago, they had an easy remedy for all of that!

Patent medicines promising “miracles” were widely popular in the late 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, manufacturers could keep their ingredients a secret. These “quack” medicines sometimes proved to be deadly. Cocaine, opium and alcohol were active ingredients in many of the most popular concoctions. Less-lethal products patent medicines were often useless herbal mixtures.

While some of these quack chemists and doctors worked right here in Indianapolis, effective mass advertising in almanacs, magazines and newspapers like the Indianapolis Star helped fuel the growth of this industry nationwide, and gave birth to direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical marketing.

Behold these panaceas plucked from the pages of post-Thanksgiving Indianapolis Star newspapers (1909-1916) …


Marmola Tablets
Advertised 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 in humans, including nervousness, insomnia, irregular heartbeat and muscle weakness. 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 for business under the name Raladam Company. For the next twenty years, the Raladam Company was involved in litigation for false and misleading advertising.


Cadomene claimed to address the following maladies: neurasthenia (nerve exhaustion), general debility, melancholy, dizziness, heart palpitation, trembling, weakness, waning strength, functional irritation of the urinary tract, langour, worry, grief, intemporance, dissipation, overwork, and malnutrition. The medication was purported to be valuable to “those who are despondent, nervous, irritable, and unable to act naturally under the most ordinary of circumstances.”

If only!

An early analysis (1921) of a Cadomene revealed that the tablets consisted essentially of zinc phosphide, iron salts… and the highly toxic strychnine. Strychnine poisoning can be fatal and it produces some of the most dramatic and painful symptoms of any known toxic reaction. (For this reason, it is often portrayed in literature and film).

In the early 20th century, however, strychnine was commonly taken in very small amounts for a variety of maladies — and also by long-distance runners to increase endurance. For example, Thomas Hicks won the 1904 Olympics marathon after ingesting two doses of strychnine diluted in brandy. He collapsed shortly after crossing the finish line, where it took hours to revive him. If Hicks had taken another dose, it could have killed him.

doans pillf

Doan’s Kidney Pills
Containing magnesium salicylate (an anti-inflamatory drug in the same category as aspirin), Doan’s once claimed to cleanse the kidneys of impurities and aid in digestion — a claim that was never substantiated. In fact, Doan’s is contraindicated for people with kidney disorders (and also pregnant women and children).

Over the years, the company changed its messaging, instead asserting its supremacy in back-pain relief. But, while magnesium salicylate is an alternative for pain relief, it exhibits no proven superiority over other over-the-counter pain relievers. Doan’s was tried over this claim, but it wasn’t until June of 1996 that the Federal Trade Commission charged the company with violating federal law.  As a result, the company was forced to run corrective ads for a year. The product must have had a strong following however, as Doan’s pills can still be purchased in pharmacies and online.

Other patent medicines of the time that are still in business include (with amended claims): Absorbine Jr., Anacin, Andrews Liver Salts, Bayer Aspirin, Bromo-Seltzer, Carter’s Little Pills, Chlorodyne, Fletcher’s Castoria, Goody’s Powder,  Lobelia Cough Syrup, Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, Minard’s Liniment, Phillip’s Milk of Magnesia, Smith Brothers Throat Drops, and Vick’s VapoRub.



sasparilla 10-31-04 indpls journal

Another popular 19th and 20th century “remedy” for a multitude of ails was Hood’s Sarsaparilla. Hood’s adverts were especially prevalent in Indianapolis newspapers 100 years ago, usually containing a “testimonial” from a “happy costumer” who resided near … but not too near… the Indianapolis area.

Hood’s claimed their formulation was “carefully prepared from Sarsaparilla, Dandelion, Mandrake, Dock, Pipsissewa, Juniper Berries, and other valuable vegetable remedies, in such a peculiar manner as to retain the full curative value of each ingredient used,” but chemical analysis reported that the mixture contained only  “2.0 parts of vegetable extract per 100 fluid parts.” Instead, its popularity might have been due to the nearly 20% alcohol content. (In retrospect, perhaps those customers were pretty happy, after all.) Until the twentieth century, alcohol was the most controversial ingredient, for it was widely recognised that the “medicines” could continue to be sold for their alleged curative properties even in “dry” states and counties. Many of the medicines were in fact liqueurs flavored with herbs.


Arlo Tonic must have had a short life. Not much can be found about this nostrum, except for archived newspaper ads. This ad featured a number of Indianapolis pharmacies that stocked the tonic.

The Collier’s patent medicine expose led to the passage of the federal Pure Food and Drug Act (which was based on an older Indiana law inspired by an Indianapolis doctor and chemist). This statute did not ban the alcohol, narcotics, and stimulants common in quack medicines — it required them to be labeled accurately — and it curbed some of the more misleading claims that appeared on the labels. Initially, it was the responsibility of postal authorities to bring quack medicine peddlers to justice, as these products were largely distributed in the mails. In 1936 the statute was revised to ban these nostrums altogether.

Do you remember any “remedies” from your childhood that have been outlawed or outmoded?

Do you collect patent medicine containers or ads?

Share your comments below or post pictures of your collection on the H.I. Facebook page! 

Resources: The Indiana State Library has a wonderful collection of vintage newspapers and the New York Bar Association offers some fascinating patent medicine advertisements online.

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