By Dr. Larry Freeman



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 his medicines.
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 his show.  


How did he get and hold his audience?


Why was he welcomed in almost every hamlet where his horse and buggy stopped?


How did he entertain those who came to look?


Why did they stay to buy?


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."



The Medicine Show 


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 medicine show.



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".



Dad's Reminiscences



"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, but our

 special is 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.


Selling Euphoria


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 Bottles

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 tax.

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,


(2) the automobile which brought people into towns for trading in big stores and


(3) better 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 Century House.


All stories are the property of Sideshow World & their respective authors.  Any republication in part or in whole is strictly prohibited.  For more information please contact us here


Snake Oil and Medicine Shows        Back to Main


All photos are the property of their respective owners whether titled or marked anonymous.

"Sideshow WorldTM" is the sole property of John Robinson All rights reserved.

is the sole property of John Robinson All rights reserved.

E-Mail Sideshow World     E-Mail The Webmaster