Pharmaceuticals in America: The Life and Death of a Patent Medicine King (1833 – 1960)


 

The History and Evolution of Health Care in America

Thomas Lockar

The Life and Death of a Patent Medicine King – Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills

There are those that believe the heyday of the Patent Medicine Men was over by 1930.  Still others believe that many of the leopards simply changed their spots. It is true that some of the original “cure-alls” live on today in various consumer products like Dr. Meyer’s

Original Brand of Pond’s Cold Cream

Compound Extract of Tomato (now Catchup), Ponds Extracts (now Ponds Cold Cream,) Horehound Drops, Coca-Cola, Hires Root Beer, Dr. Pepper, 7-Up (originally called Lithiated Bib-Soda,) Listerine (at various times marketed as a floor cleaner, surgical antiseptic, cure for gonorrhea, and then successfully as cure for Halitosis(bad breath), and the Common Cold,) Halls Catarrh Cure (later Hall’s cough drops,) and many many others. 

Further many of the companies, abandoned their “patent medicines” in favor of the new class of “ethical” pharmaceuticals that arose after the pure food and drug act of 1906. Even more damaging than the laws enacted by congress, were a series of articles in Colliers Weekly by Samuel Hopkins Adams that awoke America to the problems of these often deadly, always worthless concoctions that America was imbibing.

Many of the original members of the Proprietary Association, the rulers of the patent medicine kingdom, have disappeared from the pages of history.  That is not to say they do not still exist.  In fact, many of the major “Big Pharma” companies got their start in the heyday of Patent Medicines. If they did not produce patent medicines themselves – and few failed to capitalize on this lucrative trade from the mid 1800s through the 1930s – they provided raw materials to the purveyors of these noxious nostrums who made up a large portion of their incomes back in the day. It is no wonder that most of the major pharmaceutical manufacturers have purged their history of any mention of this era or these products.  The information is still there if you want to find it but it takes some serious digging.  Some great source for those so inclined, are the old periodicals available for free on Google Books.

Today, we fail to understand the lasting impact that this period and these manufacturers have had on our national psyche and our health care system today.  We have both many laws and numerous business practices that got their start either to help foster the sales of patent medicines or to curtail the influence of the Proprietary Association.  My book, “The History and Evolution of Health Care in America” among other things, explores in some detail the rise of this industry and its deleterious legacy on our current health care system.  Along the way I came upon an interesting story of the W.H. Comstock company, manufacturer of Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills.  In many ways this was the quintessential patent medicine manufacturer of the period.  The rest of this article will tell you a bit of the fascinating story of the W.H. Comstock company.

In northern New York there is the small, sleepy riverside town of Morristown.  Organized in 1871, few visitors even today to this picturesque location on the banks of the St. Lawrence River would suspect that it was home for over a century to one of the most famous and infamous purveyors of patent medicines of the late 19th and 20th centuries:  the W.H. Comstock factory, better known as the manufacturer of Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills.

Morristown was a quiet backwater before the Comstock brothers relocated their operations the 280 miles from New York City in 1867.  They moved, in part, to jettison some of their notoriety for a series of lawsuits between the family members in the business and many others in New York City.  Conversely, the village was a sleepy rural town whose main focus was dairy farming.  Lacking a powerful water flow at this part of the St. Lawrence it did not become a big haven for mills.  It did, however, at one point or another, develop a grist, carding and saw mill.  It was the arrival of the Comstock operation that spurred a significant period of growth in the town.

William. H Comstock (circa 1910)

What attracted the Comstock brothers was its isolation, its proximity to Canada, and similarly access to land immediately across the river.  It was also the perfect location for shipping. At the time of the relocation of the W.H. Comstock factory, the railroad was just beginning operations in the area, making travel back and forth to New York simple and convenient.  Comstock not only developed a factory in Morristown but developed a similar operation directly across the river in the Canadian town of Brockville.  It was this dual production and distribution system that helped the Comstock’s become one of the dominant players in the patent medicine game.

Like many in others in the same game, the Comstock’s were hard men in a hard business.  Founded by Edwin Comstock in 1833, along with numerous other brothers and sons their business evolved as a result of a number of questionable and contentious events in its early history.

The Comstock family came from a medical background and many of them were, or had worn the moniker of, physicians in their history.  More interestingly and likely very telling, is that the Comstock family home was in Connecticut only a few miles of the first American patent medicine, Lee’s “Bilious Pills.”  “Bilious Pills” both from Lee and many other imitators found such public and rapid success it certainly also had a profound impact on Edwin’s decision to venture forth in the same line of business.

Clearly, Edwin was not a novice when he established his business in 1833 in New York City.   As then early years progressed he would bring his brother Luscious into the business and also other brothers; Albert Lee, John Carlton, and George Wells.  He later introduced his son William Henry who ultimately succeeded him and who was the Comstock who brought the factory to Morristown.  Like many of the patent medicines of the day none of the Comstock’s products were patented but instead relied on the new trademark laws for protection.  Also like many others, they had numerous unscrupulous counterfeiters – the fakers were often members of their own family.

A great book for those who would like to learn more about the tortured history of the Comstock family along with the development of the patent medicine business might be obtained in the History of the Comstock Patent Medicine Business and Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills by Robert B. Shaw. (The book was published in 1916, and still available from Google Books.)

Comstock sold many more products other than the signature Root Pills. In 1854, Comstock & Company – then controlled by Lucius Comstock, listed nearly forty of its own preparations for sale, namely:

  1. Oldridge’s Balm of Columbia
  2. George’s Honduras Sarsaparilla
  3. East India Hair Dye, colors the hair and not the skin
  4. Acoustic Oil, for deafness
  5. Vermifuge
  6. Bartholomew’s Expectorant Syrup
  7. Carlton’s Specific Cure for Ringbone, Spavin and Wind-galls
  8. Dr. Sphon’s Head Ache Remedy
  9. Dr. Connol’s Gonorrhea Mixture
  10. Mother’s Relief
  11. Nipple Salve
  12. Roach and Bed Bug Bane
  13. Spread Plasters
  14. Judson’s Cherry and Lungwort
  15. Azor’s Turkish Balm, for the Toilet and Hair
  16. Carlton’s Condition Powder, for Horses and Cattle
  17. Connel’s Pain Extractor
  18. Western Indian Panaceas
  19. Hunter’s Pulmonary Balsam
  20. Linn’s Pills and Bitters
  21. Oil of Tannin, for Leather
  22. Nerve & Bone Liniment (Hewe’s)
  23. Nerve & Bone Liniment (Comstock’s)
  24. Indian Vegetable Elixir
  25. Hay’s Liniment for Piles
  26. Tooth Ache Drops
  27. Kline Tooth Drops
  28. Carlton’s Nerve and Bone Liniment, for Horses
  29. Condition Powders, for Horses
  30. Pain Killer
  31. Lin’s Spread Plasters
  32. Carlton’s Liniment for the Piles, warranted to cure
  33. Dr. Mc Nair’s Acoustic Oil, for Deafness
  34. Dr. Larzetti’s Acoustic Oil, for Deafness
  35. Salt Rheum Cure
  36. Azor’s Turkish Wine
  37. Dr. Larzetti’s Juno Cordial, or Procreative Elixir
  38. British Heave Powders

Because of its diverse inventory, Comstock became one of the major patent medicine companies during this period.  The manufacturer was also one of the pioneers of the Almanac as a sales tool. As Comstock began to develop its product line, the patent-medicine era was entering its golden years.  Robert Shaw states in his book, “Improved transportation, wider circulation of newspapers and periodicals, and cheaper and better bottles all enabled the manufacturers of the proprietary remedies to expand distribution—the enactment and enforcement of federal drug laws was still more than a generation in the future. So patent medicines flourished; in hundreds of cities and villages over the land enterprising self-proclaimed druggists devised a livelihood for themselves by mixing some powders into pills or bottling some secret elixir–normally containing a high alcoholic content or some other habit-forming element–created some kind of a legend about this concoction, and sold the nostrum as the infallible cure for a wide variety of human (and animal) ailments. And many conservative old ladies, each one of them a pillar of the church and an uncompromising foe of liquor, cherished their favorite remedies to provide comfort during the long winter evenings. But of these myriads of patent-medicine manufacturers, only a scant few achieved the size, the recognition, and wide distribution of Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills and the other leading Comstock remedies.”

Comstock took the lead as one of the main pioneers of the almanac -a sales brochure phenomenon of the day.  Almanacs were so popular and so mass produced that it was not uncommon for a person to walk into any drugstore and pick up three or four of them.  Some of these publications grew rapidly from just a few pages to over 64 pages by the mid 1800’s.

Stories published in the almanacs of the discovery of these nostrums, and also on the wrappers of the elixirs themselves, provided great reading and were the story-board commercial of their day.    Mr. Shaw relates in his book some examples of such inventive pitches,

Before 1900 the detailed story of the discovery of Dr. Morse’s pills was abridged to a brief summary, and during the 1920s this tale was abandoned altogether, until the end the principal ingredients were identified as natural herbs and roots used as a remedy by the Indians. In more recent years, the character and purpose of Dr. Morse’s pills also changed substantially. As recently as 1918, years after the passage of the Federal Food and Drug Act of 1906, they were still being recommended as a cure for:

  • Biliousness
  • Dyspepsia
  • Constipation
  • Sick Headache
  • Scrofula
  • Kidney Disease
  • Liver Complaint
  • Jaundice
  • Piles
  • Dysentery
  • Colds
  • Boils
  • Malarial Fever
  • Flatulency
  • Foul Breath
  • Eczema
  • Gravel
  • Worms
  • Female Complaints
  • Rheumatism
  • Neuralgia
  • La Grippe
  • Palpitation
  • Nervousness

Further, two entire pages in the almanac were devoted to explaining how, on the authority of “the celebrated Prof. La Roche of Paris,” appendicitis could be cured by the pills without a patient having to resort to the surgeon’s knife.

In another segment from the book, Mr. Shaw relays information mainly directed to the female health problems of the day.

THE GREAT FEMALE MEDICINE the almanac read:

The functional irregularities peculiar to the weaker sex, are invariably corrected without pain or inconvenience by the use of Judson’s Mountain Herb Pills. They are the safest and surest medicine for all the diseases incidental to females of all ages, and more especially so in this climate.

Ladies who wish to enjoy health should always have these Pills. No one who ever uses them once will ever allow herself to be without them. They remove all obstructions, purify the blood and give to the skin that beautiful, clear and healthful look so greatly admired in a beautiful and healthy woman. At certain periods these Pills are an indispensable companion. From one to four should be taken each day, until relief is obtained. A few doses occasionally, will keep the system healthy, and the blood so pure, that diseases cannot enter the body.

Watch any television show, listen to any radio broadcast or read any periodical or newspaper and one of the most prevalent areas of medicinal support will point to the area of sexual dysfunction.  Viagra and Cialis are boldly marketed for the treatment of men’s lack of “libido” or rigor in performance.   Only slightly more discreetly advertised are products for women related to dryness, libido enhancements or other more prurient pursuits.  While we think these issues are a modern connivance they are not. Again Mr. Shaw’s excellent history provides valuable insight to back up this assertion.  It reads:

Over on the Canadian side of the river, where another plant approximately the same size as the Morristown facilities was in operation, the Comstock Company had assimilated the Dr. Howard Medicine Co. Dr. Howard’s leading remedies were his Seven Spices for all Digestive Disorders and the Blood Builder for Brain and Body. The latter, in the form of pills, was prescribed as a positive cure for a wide array of ailments, but like many other patent medicines of the era, it was hinted that it had a particularly beneficial effect upon sexual vitality.

Over on the Canadian side of the river, where another plant approximately the same size as the Morristown facilities was in operation, the Comstock Company had assimilated the Dr. Howard Medicine Co. Dr. Howard’s leading remedies were his Seven Spices for all Digestive Disorders and the Blood Builder for Brain and Body. The latter, in the form of pills, was prescribed as a positive cure for a wide array of ailments, but like many other patent medicines of the era, it was hinted that it had a particularly beneficial effect upon sexual vitality.

They have an especial action (through the blood) upon the SEXUAL ORGANS of both Men and Women. It is a well-recognized fact that upon the healthy activity of the sexual apparatus depend the mental and physical well-being of every person come to adult years. It is that which gives the rosy blush to the cheek, and the soft light to the eye of the maiden. The elastic step, the ringing laugh, and the strong right arm of the youth, own the same mainspring. How soon do irregularities rob the face of color, the eye of brightness!

Everyone knows this. The blood becomes impoverished, the victim PALE. This pallor of the skin is often the outward mark of the trouble within. But to the sufferer there arise a host of symptoms, chiefest among which are loss of physical and nervous energy. Then Dr. Howard’s BLOOD BUILDER steps into the breach and holds the fort. The impoverished Blood is enriched. The shattered nervous forces are restored. Vigor returns. Youth is recalled. Decay routed. The bloom of health again mantles the faded cheek. Improvement follows a few days’ use of the pills; while permanent benefit and cure can only reasonably be expected when sufficient have been taken to enrich the Blood.

Before the Blood Builder pills were taken, all their users were advised to have their bowels thoroughly cleansed by a laxative medicine and, happily, the company also made an excellent preparation for this purpose–Dr. Howard’s Golden Grains. While the good doctor was modern enough–the circular quoted from was printed in the 1890s–to recognize the importance of the healthy activity of the sexual apparatus, such a suggestion should not be carried too far–so we find that the pills were also unrivaled for building up systems shattered by debauchery, excesses, self-abuse or disease. Along with the pills themselves was recommended a somewhat hardy regimen, including fresh air, adequate sleep, avoidance of lascivious thoughts, and bathing the private parts and buttocks twice daily in ice-cold water.

Certainly during the early days of the “Victorian” era these findings did not soften the ardor of the general populace who took to these remedies nor did the nature of these times force subtlety in the description of the cures available.  Today, the main findings we see pushed down our throats, very often literally, are cures for sexual dysfunction, “female problems,” constipation, the common cold or flu, mental stimulation, and my favorite compensating for loss of energy.  If one looks at the advertising for Comstock’s products one will see a historical mirror illustrating the sale of exactly the maladies and remedies for them, sometimes by the use of blunt and bold copy.  Most of the messages were communicated via the almanacs, product wrappers and newspapers. It would not be unlikely for all concerned about the evolution of health care to not wonder how much longer the patent medicine men would have held sway if radio and television had also been mediums to reach the gullible public. But then again, who is to say these purveyors of the quack and addictive have disappeared?

In a final section from the book, Mr. Shaw cites two other main points of interest during this period in which Comstock stands out as a solid illustrative member of the illustrious patent medicine industry; the use of testimonials in advertising its products and the lack of hard money in communities (important later relative to understanding the issues physicians faced in their practice in rural communities).  The use of testimonials was critical in the sale of these nostrums.  The experience of the everyday user was what rung most true to consumers, again just like today.  A great deal of newspaper ink was devoted to the publication of the merits of this nostrum or that elixir.  On rare occasions they showed up as advertisements.  More often than not, they also appeared as articles and letters to an editor.  Mr. Shaw summarizes these issues as follows.

Testimonials submitted voluntarily by happy users of the pills were always widely featured in the almanacs, newspaper adver-tisements, and handbills. Although the easy concoction of the stories about Dr. Morse and Dr. Cunard might suggest that there would have been no hesitation in fabricating these testimonials, it is probable that they were genuine; at least, many have survived in the letters scattered over the floor of the Indian Root Pill factory. In some cases one might feel that the testimonials were lacking in entire good faith, for many of them were submitted by dealers desiring lenient credit or other favors. Witness, for example, the enclosed letter from B. Mollohan of Mt. Pleasant, Webster County, West Va., on April 16, 1879.

Mollohan’s complaint about the shortage of money and the long delay in collecting many accounts reflected a condition that prevailed throughout the nineteenth century. Money was scarce, and the economy of many rural communities was still based largely on the barter system, so that it was very difficult for farmers to generate cash for store goods. Consequently, country storekeepers had to be generous in extending credit, and, in turn, manufacturers and jobbers had to be lenient in enforcing collection.

Contrary to popular perception, and in spite of many government regulations and actions taken by numerous associations to curtail the business of patent medicines, the W.H Comstock enterprise continued to thrive long after World War II.  The company reached its heyday shortly after World War I, but continued to sell many of its nostrums to retailers and distributors until March 31, 1960, when the last shipment of one-dozen boxes of pills was made to Gilman Brothers of Boston and two-dozen boxes to McKesson & Robbins of Mobile, Alabama on April 11 of that year. And with this final consignment – the factory closed its doors, concluding 93 years of continuous operation in the riverside village of Morristown.

In many ways W.H. Comstock is a true representative of the rise and decline of patent medicine manufacturers of the early 20th century.  I use the term decline as opposed to death.  It will be left up to the reader to determine if the patent medicine era has died or if the leopard has simply changed its spots. Later in this section, and in the others that follow, the reader will note that most of the companies are still with us, they have just changed their tactics or abandoned the “medicine” market for what is now referred to as “ethical pharmaceuticals” and/or the consumer product category.  Perhaps as a reader, you may come to the conclusion that “ethical” is a very flexible word when it comes to the acceptance and approval of pharmaceuticals.

After all, it took the FDA almost 100 years (1964) to finally get Warner – Lambert, the maker of Listerine – first formulated in 1879 – to finally stop improperly claiming in its advertizing that it was a cure for the common cold.

Please make a comment below if you like this brief history.  If so, I will be happy to include a few more in the next weeks as we prepare for the release of my new book!

 

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