America Awakens: 1905 the beginning of the end for patent medicines.

Share This Post

America’s Great Awakening!

Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
– John Donne

Adams vs. Cheney: The end of the patent medicine era

I find Donne’s quote very interesting – applicable to the work – the ultimate effect of which, Samuel Hopkins Adams had on the issue of quack medicine and the ill effects of patent medicine manufacturers and their nostrums. Prior to Adams revealing series, the Proprietary Association – the cartel of patent medicine manufacturers – was one of the most powerful cartels in America.  While today we think of the Sherman Act of 1890 as an anti-trust act targeting companies like Standard Oil, one of the primary objectives of this legislation was the Proprietary Association.  As a testament to their power, the first use of the Sherman Act did not occur for ten years after its passing and then it was in the Miles vs. Park case.  In this case, Miles, was Dr. Miles founder of what we now know as Miles Laboratories.  Even with this, and other legislation the power of the Proprietary Association was so great nothing changed.  Even the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, did little to diminish the sale of their noxious and often deadly elixirs.

The Proprietary Association controlled most of the newspapers of the day.  It was the rise of the periodical magazine that began to provide a voice free of the censorship of the Association to people like Adams that provided the vehicle of change.  And it took the courage of Adams, and others like him to report the truth that began to wake up the country, particularly the women of America, to the dangers of their medications.
What clearly spurred Adams on were his feelings of diminishment for the death of the people these nostrums had killed.  His investigations led to the discovery of various business practices, by and large unregulated at the time of inception, and the link between these various practices and their monopolistic power.  Adams exposed how the Proprietary Association was controlling its members, the resellers of the products, the distributors, state legislators, congressional legislation and ultimately the newspapers that the public was supposed to be relying on to keep commerce honest.  In the end, his series of seven articles was prophetic as they brought the public out of its stupor, both figuratively and literally.  In the words of Donne, Adams told the patent medicine men, “the bell tolls for thee!” and it surely did.
In October 7, 1905, Collier’s Weekly began printing a series of articles by Adams.  The series contained “A full explanation and exposure of patent medicine methods and the harm done to the public by this industry, founded mainly on fraud and poison. Results of the publicity given to these methods can be already seen in the steps recently taken by the National Government, some State Governments, and a few of the more reputable newspapers. The object of the series is to make the situation so familiar and thoroughly understood that there will be a speedy end to the worst aspects of the evil.” (Note: Read the reprinted version entitled The Great American Fraud available through Google Books.)

 The Red Clause

Cheney's Main Product

There were a significant number of revelations by Adams. He exposed the nature of what most of the formulations were made of.  He showed how they were based on the simple premise of addiction.  He illustrated the danger of these drugs and the hypocrisy of many who defended them.  He established clear connections between the various members of the cartel and showed how they conspired to maintain their control over the buying public.  Perhaps most importantly he disclosed the “legal” business practices that the cartel used to control the supposed “watchdogs” for the public good – the newspapers via the Red Clause.
Adams printed statements by Frank J. Cheney, the manufacturer of one of the most popular patent medicines of the day – Hall’s Catarrh Cure. Cheney was also one of the most powerful and successful of the nostrum purveyors.  Mr. Cheney, then president of the Proprietary Association, in addressing his fellow members as president at their annual meeting in 1899, made the following comment:

“We have had a good deal of difficulty in the last few years with the different legislatures of the different States…..I believe I have a plan whereby we will have no difficulty whatever with these people. I’ve used it in my business for two years and know it is a practical thing….I, inside of the last two years, have made contracts with between fifteen and sixteen thousand newspapers, and never had but one man refuse to sign the contract, and by saying to him that I could not sign a contract without this clause in it, he readily signed it….this is what I have had in every contract I make: ‘It is hereby agreed that should your State, or the United States Government, pass any law that would interfere with or restrict the sale of proprietary medicines, this contract shall become void….’ in the State of Illinois a few years ago they wanted to assess me $300.00. I thought I had a better plan than this, so I wrote to about forty papers and merely said: ‘Please look at your contract with me and take note that if this law passes you and I must stop doing business, and my contracts cease.’ The next week every one of them had an article….”

At the same meeting Dr. Frederick K. Humphries the maker of Pond’s Healing Cream (relabeled as Pond’s Cold Cream the product is still around today – but no longer healing) told the association that of “The twenty thousand newspapers of the United States make more money from advertising the proprietary medicines than do the proprietors of the medicines themselves….of their receipts (the manufacturers), one-third to one-half goes for advertising.”  Mr. Cheney further opined that the annual figure paid to newspapers in the U.S. exceeded twenty million dollars equating to more than one thousand dollars to each newspaper – a hefty sum in those days.  Cheney stated that he had contracts with over 14,000 newspapers at the time.  Finally, adding an almost sinister air, the record shows the Dr. Humphreys states,

“Will it not be now just as well to act on this, each and every one for himself instead of putting this on record?….I think the idea is a good one but really don’t think it had better go in our proceedings.”

Clearly intending they wanted to keep this secret.
Some revealing quotes and sections from Adams’ articles provide a very good idea how profound this series was.
The Following are some excerpted quotes from “The Great American Fraud”

Testimonial of a reader

The proprietor of a drug store in San Jose, Cal., writes to Collier’s as follows:
“I have a good customer, a married woman with five children, all under 10 years of age. When her last baby was born, about a year ago, the first thing she did was to order a bottle of Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, and every week another bottle was bought at first, until now a bottle is bought every third day. Why? Because the baby has become habituated to the drug. I am not well enough acquainted with the family to be able to say that the weaned children show any present abnormality of health due to the opium contained in the drug, but the after-effects of opium have been thus described.
Another instance, quite as startling, was that of a mother who gave large quantities of soothing syrup to two of her children in infancy; then, becoming convinced of its danger, abandoned its use. These children in middle life became neurotics, spirit and drug-takers. Three children born later and not given any drugs in early life grew up strong and healthy.
“I fear the children of the woman in question will all suffer for their mother’s ignorance, or worse, in later life, and have tried to do my duty by sending word to the mother of the harmful nature of the stuff, but without effect.
“P. S. How many neurotics, fiends and criminals may not ‘Mrs. Winslow’ be sponsor for?”

Adams comment on the
effect on the populace

Restrict the drug by the same safeguards when sold under a lying pretense as when it flies its true colors. Then, and then only, will our laws prevent the shameful trade that stupefies helpless babies and makes criminals of our voting men and harlots of our young women.

Adams quote on the responsibility
of the newspaper owners

Every intelligent newspaper publisher knows that the testimonials which he publishes are as deceptive as the advertising claims are false. Yet he salves his conscience with the fallacy that the moral responsibility is on the advertiser and the testimonial-giver. So it is, but the newspaper shares it. When an aroused public sentiment shall make our public men ashamed to lend themselves to this charlatanry, and shall enforce on the profession of journalism those standards of decency in the field of medical advertising which apply to other advertisers, the Proprietary Association of America will face a crisis more perilous than any threatened legislation. For printers’ ink is the very life-blood of the noxious trade.  Take from the nostrum vendors the means by which they influence the millions, and there will pass to the limbo of pricked bubbles a fraud whose flagrancy and impudence are of minor import compared to the cold-hearted greed with which it grinds out its profits from the sufferings of duped and eternally hopeful ignorance.

While Collier’s and Adams’ articles were not the first ones to raise the issue they were the ones that triggered the final effect.  The AMA had been distancing themselves from the Proprietary Association and patent medicines in the few previous years, yet their exposes and articles in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) did not have much effect since they were not widely read by the public. For a long time, JAMA was running ads for the very same patent medicines which made many physicians skeptical.
While the AMA had set up a committee to test the efficacy of the nostrums on the market, many physicians observed the medications that JAMA found as being ineffective were those from manufacturers that were not purchasing advertising space in JAMA.  Adams’ articles reached the broad public, and more importantly the women who were gaining power as a result of the Progressive Movement – Susan B. Anthony, and suffrage in particular – and it was this factor in conjunction with the legislative efforts that finally made the difference.  The bell had finally tolled – and loud enough so that the public had finally heard it.

Final Point

While Colliers and Adams had clearly rung the bell – the Proprietary Association also clearly still controlled the newspapers.  An article, written by Joel Blanc, appeared in 1905 written for the “Practical Druggist” periodical with the offensive title “The Niggers in the Wood Pile.” Like many others of the day, Mr. Blanc made a mighty attempt to play down the whole problem of the rising tide of concern about addiction and the problems with patent medicines.  They deemed it a big misunderstanding.  He further asserts the audacious stance of blaming the public’s concern against danger, injury and death as the responsibility of the true “fiends who are abusing these harmless medications.”  The title of the article was not simply an interesting pejorative of the day.  It was a part of an orchestrated campaign by the Proprietary Association to lay the problem caused by the “fiends” directly at the feet of freed slaves who he asserted were the true addicts.  While Mr. Blanc did not refer directly to the race excuse, other than in the title, he used this type of attack to attribute the problem to the lower class and disenfranchised.  The Proprietary Association and the targeting of minorities of any related issues had a long history in the patent medicine trade.  During this period, the blame not directed to simply the poor classes, it was now seen repeatedly in newspaper articles, often in the south, where it began to attribute the concern to rising violence and rape of “white” women by addicted “Negros” or in the West as an expected outcome due to the unscrupulous nature of “China-men.”  While society rejects this type of invective today, race based execration was all too common in this country’s sad history during this period which directly contributed to the distrust and disaffection between the races for many years.

Again I ask, if you enjoy this article, please comment!  A word or two makes it all worth while! – Tom

Subscribe to Our Mailing List

Get our latest articles and Stories right to your inbox.

More To Explore

Human Experience and Perception

Quantum Consciousness: A New Perspective on Reality and Existence

Discover the Quantum Consciousness hypothesis – a groundbreaking concept blending quantum mechanics with human consciousness. This innovative approach challenges traditional views, suggesting our reality might be an intricate illusion shaped by quantum phenomena. Delve into this provocative perspective that redefines existence, linking life, death, and consciousness in a continuous quantum process.

Do you have questions or comments?

drop us a line and keep in touch

Receive the latest news

Subscribe To Stay Informed

Get notified about new articles