The writer's father
once had a big troupe modeled after one nation-wide
touring company the Kickapoo Indian Show that
peddled Sagwaw and other dark bilge products of this
famed Connecticut company (yes. there actually
was a Kickapoo "joy juice"). People believed in
And just as in former times many still prefer to
dose themselves without aid of a licensed physician.
My mother, at 84, still avoids regular doctors as
she would the plague; but a smooth line and great
promises of painless betterment finds a receptive
ear. Who is to say, therefore, that the medicine
man's usually harmless showcase was not a true
elixir of life.
The earliest memory
of my father has him pulling off his spanking horse
team and its wagon covered with Old Dr. Wood's
medicines, "good for man or beast." The year was
1905 and Dad, who had been a New York City specialty
salesman, was somewhat dubious about the future of
taking over a "down-at-the-heels medicine show"
inherited by his mother's third husband, the
now-deceased "Dr." Wood, guess the probable "take"
must have looked lucrative to Dad: anyway he later
once said, "It was all probably a mistake, for the
medicine show was then in its last days." But while
it lasted everyone (including the customers in the
sticks") had fun.
This is the story of a bygone Early American
Occupation and the bottles of nostrums that are now
only sold via "quiz shows" on the TV screen.
It is a tale of the medicine (how peddler, his
advertisements, tent shows and especially the
bottles his patients left behind for posterity. A
major portion of this booklet carries a full listing
(with pictures and Thompson's relative rarity chart)
of the Bitters and other Marked Proprietary Medicine
Bottles that are now such fine collectors items.
Everything from Lydia Pinkham (once on the medicine
show circuit) to Warner's "Safe" cure is here,
including that most fabulously successful nostrum of
all (Plantation Log Cabin Tonic) whose "good for
everything" advertising brochure is reproduced on
the last pages of the book.
But our attention must go first to the seller and
How did he get and
hold his audience?
Why was he welcomed
in almost every hamlet where his horse and buggy
How did he
entertain those who came to look?
Why did they stay
Were his medicines
harmless or dangerous for health?
What evidence is
there that they did help many of our grandmothers
and grandfathers towards a vigorous life?
Were some of these
old medicine show remedies actually beneficial to
the body chemistry or were they all-as I was told by
Dad during my school day studies of the science of
mind just psychological uplift for people with no
basic functional ailments"?
If you want my opinion as a long-time doctor of both
psychology and medicine, it was a little of both.
People still have their spirits raised by the
thought that a sip of tonic (contents unknown) will
help "tired blood."
Various peoples at
various times have evidenced a mass hypnotism with
mania for miraculous healing. From tartarism
to voodism, belief in primitive herbal remedies has
a long, Early American history. We cannot now
assay the various herbals concocted in our pioneer
households and passed on as part of family tradition
to the next generation or neighbors. Here we
are concerned only with those people who made a
commercial business out of "patent medicine" and
especially those who sold the brews via a travelling
Everyone has heard
of Lydia Pinkham's Compound for Female Troubles and
the business she started on the kitchen stove, also
how her boys gave this a major shove by becoming
"showmen with wagons." But long before its
mid-century heyday, concoctions bottled by so-called
"Doctors" and "Indians," medicine men were roaming
the countryside with their own nostrums. Just when
they took to carriages with a troupe for free
entertainment in tow can not be precisely dated.
Probably as soon as primitive roads became wagon
passable, some enterprising soul saw here a new way
to "drive" his way to wealth by selling health.
People in backwoods territory and village hamlets
were starved for entertainment. There were no
theatres or home talent plays; pioneer churches
looked askance at having fun. But if a strolling
minstrel and his troupe were to stop at the
crossroads, open the wagon's back-flap and give a
free entertainment, people would flock to see from
miles around. What
is more, with a good "spiel," they would buy.
In this way was the medicine man and later his
elaborate tent show born.
A typical early "show" began with a straightforward
statement that one's health was his most precious
possession and that Dr. Quack was here to help. Next
he introduced his partner
or (if he only travelled alone) re-introduced
himself as a world famous performer of magic, music
or song; thus the show got under way. This was
followed by bringing out the medicine bottles and
extolling their virtue. Then more music or clog
dancing and with everything going real lively, a
final exhortation to buy. "Step right up ladies and
gentlemen and put your quarter on the line. Money
back if no cure within twenty-four hours ... I can
help everyone of you."- And with the cash jingling
in his pocket away the Medicine Man drove for the
next port of call.
As the "take" grew progressively bigger with each
year expanding settlements, the proprietor added
more enterliners until it became expedient to carry
a tent and "set up" one spot for several days.
Some proprietors gave up the circuit ride in favor
of just making and bottling the medicine, lien
letting independent showmen go out and sell it as
they 'leased. The greatest entertainment feature
seems to have been the Indian (or Indians), dressed
in alleged tribal costume and lancing wildly about
or uttering gutteral nonsense as he smoked the
peace-pipe; a Negro with his banjo made good music,
and of course, the proprietor could play anything or
any part as the situation demanded.
The alleged virtues of Indian remedies were so
generally accepted that many wagon and tent shows
billed themselves "Indian Medicine Men".
"Well, the man who went out and got extra boys
needed to play in the show was the boss the promoter
the manager and incidentally the barker/talker who
did all the announcing. We had a band of
Indians but only one of them was real. The
talent consisted of several old-time professional
actors and a rather poor band of only three pieces,
consisting of a small street organ, a cornet and a
banjo. The manager picked out a good vacant
lot, their pack wagon arrived filled to capacity
with equipment, scenery and properties.
Immediately a rough enclosed stage and cover was
erected, seats were placed in front, planks laid on
soap boxes; clothes-line was strung around the
enclosure and a small stand for the barker/talker
was placed near the entrance. On a high pole a
calcium light was erected (for night use) and people
were beckoned in It's all free." The Kickapoo
Show was now ready. Indians marched down the
aisle doing a war dance while the band played a
lively tune or the Star Spangled Banner. The
manager then went on the stage and welcomed the
audience and hoped they would enjoy this healthful
show. Then the feature of the evening took
place, usually a comedy lasting not more than half
an hour. Next the barker/talker announced.
"Folks, we have a few bottles of wonderful liniment
to cure all pains and aches at 25c a bottle,
Indian Sagwaw at $1.00 a bottle guaranteed to cure
coughs, colds or pains in the stomach." The
Indians would then go down the aisles and sell the
medicines like hot cakes.
A few people
(always connected with the show) would stand up and
give their testimonials as to the miraculous cures
derived from the medicines they had bought at the
show. Then, the
barker/talker would announce a ten minute
intermission calling attention to the refreshment
counter on the side (no free handouts there).
The second part of the show started with the band
and then a nervous tenor sang a piece like "Asleep
in the Deep"; and a brief final sketch "Your Turn
Next", loosed the show. The barker/talker,
however, rose on his feet to announce that his
famous hair tonic (made of rattlesnake oil) "will
make hair grow on a bald head and can be obtained
before you leave the grounds." And so it went,
several times daily.
Medicine show men, even in its last days, put on a
very crude performance, nothing much as far as the
scenery and talent of modern theaters are concerned.
In their day, however, Medicine Show men pleased
people immensely. In fact, they were the
forerunners of all of today's better types of
entertainers. That they sold remedies of
dubious worth is somehow quite beside the point.
They did bring people together and gave them a boost
to otherwise dull living. Whether the contents
were primarily alcoholic or rain water, they set a
pattern for health hopes through easy-to-take
'medical' dosage that persists in related form even
now. And if you think that the exaggerated claims
and fear-selling of today's advertising is modern,
just look at the Bitters Bottles and Proprietary
Medicines peddled by the free tent showmen of
yesterdayy. Department stores like Macy's and
Gimbels, find most successful "pitch" is selling
health and beauty by a free show in the "Bargain (?)
Basement! ! ! ! !" People gather around top
pitchmen and women to be carried away by a
fascinating dramatic performance. They still
go for impulse buying, part easily with their money
and carry their purchase away feeling highly elated.
Once home, however, they tend to hide it in the
cupboard so they will have a chance to test its
alleged virtues in private and with none to
criticize a rash purchase.
No more prolific
field has ever existed for growth of popular manias
than the human desire for physical health, beauty
and comfort. It is in this field that
medicinal nostrums have flourished and that many a
cult that promised bodily ease to its followers has
grown and prospered. There is a word in the language
of medicine that at once defines and expresses this
altogether human desire to feel well the word is
euphoria. As this euphoria may be induced
either by mental suggestion or by administration of
stimulants, the peddlers who provided systematic
stimuli to delusion or even drugs, had at hand a
means to induce a mass mania, and used it.
It appears that some medicine show men were well too
shrewdly aware that one of the most potent agents
for euphoria is alcohol. They were also aware
the prevailing conscience of that day obeyed a code
regarding indulgence in alcoholic stimulants as a
sin. A still more prevalent human
characteristic was a willingness to esteem euphoria
desirable if produced > medicine. With
these understandings in their possession: medicine
show men were able to make a
composition of Bitters on the stronghold of popular
conscience and to impel a popular mania.
The most important thing to know about patent
medicines is that they were highly alcoholic in
content. Whatever herbs or drugs or flavorings
held in suspension in the alcoholic base were
usually gratuitous and had little or no medicinal
value. Despite the loud protestations of some
vendors that their concoctions were "temperance," it
remained a chemical impossibility for such fluids to
retain any potency without alcohol. Here,
then, is the salient point in any definition or
understanding: that the very chemical or
pharmaceutical composition of Bitters implied a
hypocrisy and a popular form of self-delusion that
persuaded the very large numbers of people to a
seemingly innocent violation of an otherwise
strictly observed code.
How greatly this mass delusion was responsible for
changes in American customs and character may be
guessed by the fact that the 'Bitters Industry' rose
to the highest brackets in American commerce under
these old-time peddlers, and that the bottles had a
great influence in propelling the glass industry
upward with it to commercial success.
Their rarity today is due to the almost indefinable
psychological quality that surrounds medicine show
bottles. The same conscience that was deluded to a
belief that bitter tasting stimulants could be
imbibed innocently in the guise of medicine turned
more honest in a fear of discovery of its
peccadilloes, and was impelled to destruction of the
evidences of its secret tippling.
Great numbers of
bottles were broken up due to this impulse.
Fall of The Showman's
For those who are
stimulated to a search for advertising materials and
pictures of the old-time medicine shows, such
collaterals will provide a wealth of entertainment,
information and a large assortment of collectibles.
This includes the almanacs, yearbooks, brochures and
pamphlets issued for medicine show advertising, the
trade cards and calendars, sample miniature bottles
and novelties, the newspaper advertisings,
broadsides and folders,
the labels and cartons, the posters and play cards,
proprietary and medicine stamps, business
correspondence, bills and other fugitive notes,
herbalists and family "doctor books",
the memorabilia of temperance societies and, most
important, records of the long and finally
successful struggle of the Government to assess upon
medicine makers a pure drug code and proper revenue
All these are important; but I would say that the
decline and jail of the medicine show man rests
on three early 1900's developments
(1) Coming of
the Pure Food and Drug Act, with heavy penalties for
the so-called "Doctor"
bottling any old brew under his own label,
automobile which brought people into towns for
trading in big stores and
educational insights and higher amusement standards.
People were no longer as easily "taken" by a free
low-grade medicine show put on by singing Indians
(fake or real). Not every barker/talker with a
tall hat and persuasive manner could any longer pass
as a great "Doctor." And so with better
transportation, better educational opportunity and
stricter government control of remedial concoctions,
the medicine man's show came to its end.
The above excerpts from the Medicine Show Man, book No. 5 of
Century House's Early American Occupations series.
It covers the lore of the old peddler of nostrums,
his advertisements, wagons and tent shows.
Not included in this articles is the full listing
with pictures and values by Thompson, of the Bitters
and marked Proprietary Medicine Bottles.
Medicine Show Man by Dr. Larry Freeman -1949/57