Tag: Patent medicines

Dr. Miles and Alka-Seltzer

The Dr. Miles Medical Company in Elkhart, Indiana, made a fortune selling the Dr. Miles’ Nervine, a patent medicine that calmed the nerves. Like most patent medicine companies, Dr. Miles marketed its medicines through pamphlets and almanacs. And like most patent medicines, Dr. Miles’ Nervine seemed to cure any ailment and to improve your general well being. Every pamphlet was filled with testimonial from reputable and satisfied patient-customers (we should probably hear echoes of this technique in today’s DTC pharmaceutical campaigns). Dr. Miles occupies an interesting place in the history of patent medicines. Unlike other companies that died out with the patent medicine craze, Dr. Miles stumbled onto a compound that we still use today: Alka-Selzer.

In the early 1930s Dr. Miles published a pamphlet celebrating its new discovery: Modern Science Discovers a Common Sense Way to Relieve Everyday Aches and Pains.

Dr. Miles emphasizes the “Modern Science” in marketing their Alka-Seltzer.
Dr. Miles emphasizes the “Modern Science” in marketing their Alka-Seltzer.

A postcard glued into this pamphlet suggests that it dates from June 1932, not long after a chemist at the company had developed the product. Gone are the references to astrology so common in patent medicine marketing—about this same time Dr. Miles had published a similar pamphlet that was built around astrology: Character Readings According to the Solar Zodiac (see this post). Dr. Miles’s latest pamphlet focuses instead on the science, the scientists, and the scientific apparatus: flasks and jars, microscope, distillation apparatus, clean-cut, staid men in white lab coats.

A staid, clean-cut scientist inspects a glass of Alka-Seltzer.
A staid, clean-cut scientist inspects a glass of Alka-Seltzer.

In 1932 Alka-Seltzer took its place alongside Dr. Miles’ many other patent medicines: Nervine, Nervine Tablets, Anti-Pain pills, a tonic, an “Alterative Compound,” a Cactus Compound, Little Pills, Laxative Tablets, and Aspir-Mint.

In 1932 Alka-Seltzer was just one of many patent medicines sold by Dr. Miles.
In 1932 Alka-Seltzer was just one of many patent medicines sold by Dr. Miles.

Today Alka-Seltzer as well as the former Dr. Miles company are owned by Bayer Schering Pharma, perhaps best known for its aspirin (Bayer also gave us Heroin, which it originally marketed as a cough medicine).

More Patent Medicine Artifacts

Moving boxes in my office, I came across two patent medicine bottles. The smaller one comes from Philadelphia’s own Dr. Jayne’s. Dr. Jayne’s started selling its tonic in the 1840s and became incredibly successful. By the end of the century, the factory occupied the entire city block on Chestnuyt between 2nd St. and 3rd St. Images of the building can be seen on the cover of Dr. Jayne’s almanac (on these almanacs, see Dr. Jayne’s Family Medicines).

A small bottle from Philadelphia’s own Dr. Jayne’s patent medicine company.
A small bottle from Philadelphia’s own Dr. Jayne’s patent medicine company.

A quick search on the National Library of Medicine’s site shows that Dr. Jayne’s ran afoul of the FDA a number of times in the early 20th century. In 1917, the Pennsylvania Co. for Insurance on Lives and Granting Annuities—a corporation set up by Henry LaBarre Jayne and Henry Paxson— was fined $200 for shipping their product into New York (with Spanish labels). The charge was misbranding. Analyses turned up opium and alcohol among other things (report here):

Analyses of samples of the articles by the Bureau of Chemistry of this department showed the following results:
The Balsamo Carminativo consisted essentially of opium, a laxative plant drug, probably rhubarb, carbonates, ammonium and potassium salts, aromatics, sugar, alcohol, and water.

The Expectorante consisted essentially of opium, an antimony salt, sugar, alcohol, and water flavored with oil of anise and methyl salicylate.

The Pildoras Sanativas consisted essentially of aloes, gamboge, and a salt of mercury.

The Alterativo consisted essentially of sarsaparilla, sassafras, licorice, potassium iodid, traces of an unidentified alkaloid, sugar, alcohol, and water.

The Linimento 6 Contra-Irritante consisted essentially of oils of turpentine, sassafras, and capsicum, and of soap, alcohol, and water.

In 1933, 1942, and again in 1943 Dr. Jayne’s was charged with misbranding. Although the ingredients varied, each time they were found to have no therapeutic effect.

The second bottle comes from Buffalo Springs in Mecklenburg County, Virginia. Apparently, the springs there were thought to have healing power. By the late 19th century entrepreneurial types were bottling and selling the water as Buffalo Spring Lithia Water, Nature’s Materia Medical, claiming it cured, among other ailments, “Bright’s Disease, Albuminuria, Renal Calculi, Gout, Rheumatism, and all Diseases Dependent Upon a Uric Acid Diathesis.” (see, for example, this ad from 1899).

A large bottle that once contained Buffalo Spring Lithia Water.
A large bottle that once contained Buffalo Spring Lithia Water.

Like Dr. Jaynes, Buffalo Spring Lithia Water was charged with misbranding. Analyses didn’t reveal the cocktail of ingredients found in Dr. Jayne’s, but it also didn’t find any appreciable quantity of lithium, the celebrated active ingredient.

A Historical Perspective on DTC Drug Marketing

An article in the NY Times reports on a recent research about Direct-to-Consumer drug marketing. The article draws attention to authority and power of a “survey” in convincing consumers to self-diagnos and to request particular drugs.

Dr. Jayne’s Almanac—Patent Medicine Propaganda by a local, Philadelphia company.

All this sounds a lot like the techniques used a century ago to market patent medicines. At that time Muckraking journalism helped expose an industry that was probably not helping anybody and might actually be harming many consumers.

In Markting Drugs Then and Now I draw out some of the many similarities between the two eras. There are a number of related posts on patent medicines linked to from that post.