Harmon’s Histories: Snake oils and quackery in early Missoula


By Jim Harmon

It’s called DTC advertising and it’s pervasive in today’s media. Big Pharma’s “Direct to Customer” (DTC) marketing urges you to “Ask your doctor if (this or that drug or pill) is right for you,” following which they list the sometimes lengthy side-effects of the drug.

According to AdWeek, a major publication that monitors trends in advertising, Big Pharma spends nearly $5 billion annually on drug advertising, although there are movements underway in Washington, D.C., to reign that in.

In a way, DTC is nothing new.

Back in the 1800s, before Big Pharma and before any federal oversight, all sorts of products were being marketed directly to customers via the media of the day – the daily and weekly newspapers – with claims to cure everything that ailed you.

They became known as patent medicines or, less kindly, “snake oil remedies.” They were advertised regularly in Missoula newspapers; some were available at local drug stores and others by mail.

Cupidene claimed to cure back pain, insomnia, pimples and even “unfitness to marry… all the horrors of impotency.” Said to be the “prescription of a famous French physician,” the Devol Medicine Company of San Francisco claimed Cupidene would restore your manhood, and clean your liver and kidneys at the same time.

Decades later, Postal authorities would issue a fraud order against the company when the federal Department of Agriculture determined the ingredients were nothing more than ash and sugar combined with “starch, red pepper, Spanish flies and fibrous tissue.”

Another pitch, for Aphroditine, guaranteed to cure “any disorder of the generative organs… (including) seminal weakness, hysteria, nocturnal emissions, loss of power and impotency, which if neglected often lead to premature old age and insanity.”

If you had a drinking problem, “You had better stop at once or you’ll lose your job,” and, of course, the best way to stop drinking was by taking “Orrine,” available at the Missoula Drug Co. at Higgins and Front.

By 1921, Dr. Arthur J. Cramp, the Director of the Propaganda Department (I am not making this up) of the American Medical Association published the “Nostrums and Quakery” book, declaring that Orrine was mostly just milk sugar and ammonium chloride.

If you had “bronchitis, croup, stiff neck, asthma, neuralgia, congestion, pleurisy, rheumatism, lumbago, pains and aches of the back or joint, sprains, sore muscles, bruises, chilblains, frosted feet, or colds of the chest,” then you needed Musterole. Yes, Musterole would do it all. It even claimed to prevent pneumonia.NEWBRO'S HERPICIDE

Ladies with unsightly hair were first admonished for their carelessness, then urged to buy Newbro’s herpicide. “Many ladies are, and many more should be, ashamed when they look in the glass and see their hair. The condition of some is almost a disgrace. Thin, scraggy, wispy hair generally indicates dandruff, which is due to a germ.”

Once the Garden City’s ladies had taken care of their unsightly hair and were fit to be seen in public, they presumably rushed to the D. C. Smith Agency in Missoula for Stearns’ Pile Remedy, for it promised to stop the pile pain “in one minute,” or your money back.

Of course, if your back ached or you were having bladder trouble, you were told to stop eating meat immediately and take four ounces of Jad Salts from your local pharmacy. After all, “Nearly all rheumatism, headaches, liver trouble, nervousness, dizziness, sleeplessness and urinary disorders come from sluggish kidneys.” So you should “take a tablespoon in a glass of water before breakfast and in a few days your kidneys will act fine.”

In 1905, Collier’s magazine ran an article by Samuel Hopkins Adams titled, “The Great American Fraud,” in which he exposed these snake oil marketers.

“Gullible America will spend this year some seventy-five millions of dollars in the purchase of patent medicines. In consideration of this sum it will swallow huge quantities of alcohol, an appalling amount of opiates and narcotics, a wide assortment of varied drugs ranging from powerful and dangerous heart depressants to insidious liver stimulants; and far in excess of all other ingredients, undiluted fraud. For fraud, exploited by the skilfulest [sic] of advertising bunco men, is the basis of the trade.”

“Should the newspapers, the magazines, and the medical journals refuse their pages to this class of advertisements, the patent medicine business in five years would be as scandalously historic as the South Sea Bubble, and the nation would be the richer not only in lives and money, but in drunkards and drug-fiends saved.”

Aside from patent medicines, there were other 19th century suggestions for improved health.

How about bowling?

That’s right, Ben Lindsay’s Bowling Gymnasium at the St. Louis Hotel in Missoula offered “Cures guaranteed without the use of medicines, by practicing at the most invigorating of all amusements, bowling.”

Then, in the early 20th century, there was something called “open air schools,” an experiment conducted in conjunction with the Society for the Prevention of Tuberculosis.

Detailed in Polson’s Flathead Currier, in 1910 (from an article in the American City Magazine) the concept was to expose school children to more sun and air, both summer and winter.

In Providence and Boston, as well as in European cities, the open-air experimenters had removed one wall of a school house, allowing in fresh air (extremely cold air in winter) in order to “harden children to weather conditions.”APHRODOTINE AD

The author of the article was Eleanora Whitman Curtis, “holder of the degree of Master of arts and honorary fellow of Clark University.” Curtis concluded that “delicate and backward children can accomplish in far less, sometimes in half, the time the task of ordinary schoolchildren, raises the question as to whether similar methods in elementary school instruction might not be adopted to the benefit of all school children. On the grounds of social hygiene alone, then, outdoor schools would seem justifiable. On the pedagogical side they are a revelation.”

Jim Harmon is a retired journalist whose 50-year career included nearly three decades at KECI-TV, Missoula in roles ranging from news anchor to weather forecaster. In retirement, Jim is a landscape gardener and history buff who’s spent years reading historical micro-film newspapers. You can read his weekly history column at the Missoula Current.