Patent Medicines and Drug Laws of the 20th Century

The packaging was often colorful, promised relief, or even a cure. Consumers would overlook the ingredients hoping for a cure. Native American images were common and led purchasers to believe the products were closer to nature, as many believed that Native Americans had special healing knowledge. These proprietary medicines were manufactured by entrepreneurs who produced "quack medicines" that had questionable effectiveness. Despite the name “patent medicine,” almost none of these were patented.

In the nineteenth century, liniments and ointments were often advertised as containing snake-oil, which was a common cure-all for arthritis and rheumatism. This led to the term "snake-oil salesman"—a modern-day charlatan. Many of these "quack medicines" were sold by traveling salesmen and entertainers in what became "medicine shows."

Drug Laws

There were no controls on the manufacturing of patent medicines until 1906 when the U.S. government passed the Pure Food and Drugs Act to regulate these "quack" medicines and to protect consumers from misleading information. The 1906 Act also aided in the creation of the Food and Drug Administration, which ensured more stringent labeling on drugs as well as better quality foodstuffs.

In 1911, the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited false advertising of patent medicines, a ruling that applied to the disclosure of ingredients but not to the effectiveness of the product.

In 1912, the U.S. government passed the Shirley Amendment to the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act, which prohibited false claims in drug advertising.

Members of the Ho-Chunk Nation in front of the Warner Drugstore in Black River Falls, Wisconsin, ca. 1915. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society

Patent Medicines and Drug Laws of the 20th Century