Traveling Medicine Shows


Buffalo Bill's Wild West and Rough Riders of the World poster

Medicine Shows were a popular form of entertainment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their origins can be traced back as far back as 14th-century Europe, where performers put on shows and then sold their wares in village squares and other public places. In Colonial America, patent medicines were sold at local fairs and markets. Medicine Shows grew in popularity, and after the Civil War, grew in size and form.

Between acts and during intermissions, promoters showcased and sold patent medicines, promising miracle cures. These early types of “commercials” featured testimonials from satisfied customers planted in the audience.

One popular traveling show was Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Founded in 1883 by William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, the traveling show entertained audiences by providing a glimpse of America's changing frontier. The Wild West Show exhibited reenactments of battles with Native Americans, indigenous pow wows, magic tricks, horseback riding, and shooting skills.

Traveling Medicine Show Black River Falls, Wisconsin, ca. 1895. Photo courtsey Wisconsin Historical Society

Traveling Medicine Shows