Quackery refers to unproven or fraudulent medical practices, often through the sale or application of “quack medicines”. The word “quack” derives from the archaic Dutch word “quacksalver,” meaning “boaster who applies a salve.” A closely associated German word, “Quacksalber,” means “questionable salesperson .” In the Middle Ages the word quack meant “shouting”. The quacksalvers sold their wares on the market shouting in a loud voice.
Quack medicines were especially prevalent in the British Empire for centuries, including in the American colonies. Following the American Revolution and the War of 1812, American products began to dominate the domestic market. The American term for quack medicine was “snake oil”, a reference to sales pitches in which the sometimes outrageous claims of medicinal successes were attributed to the exotic ingredients of their product. Those who sold them were called “snake oil peddlers” or “snake oil salesmen”. These opportunists often used enthusiastic and deceptive sales techniques, including “fire and brimstone” sermons, theatrical productions, and confidence tricks. These salesmen often skipped town before the scam was fully discovered. In American literature, Huck Finn encounters two such grifters during his rafting expedition into the South in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In the end, they are tarred and feathered and run out of town. Others manufacturers found success through of the noble savage stereotype of the American Indian in product names and advertising.
The Quack medicine trade eventually became a victim of the Progressive movement’s efforts to regulate business. Muckraking Journalist Samuel Hopkins Adam excoriated the industry in a series of articles titled “The Great American Fraud”, published in Colliers Weekly starting in late 1905. On February 21, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drug Act. Some quacks were enormously successful. German immigrant William Radam started selling “Microbe Killer” throughout the United States in the 1880s. His project claimed to “Cure All Diseases,” and even embossed the promise on the glass bottles in which the medicine was packaged. In fact, Radam’s medicine was a therapeutically useless (and in large quantities actively poisonous) dilute solution of sulfuric acid, colored with red wine. Quack medicines often had no effective ingredients, while others contained morphine or laudanum, which numbed rather than cured. Some did have medicinal effects; for example mercury, silver and arsenic compounds may have helped some infections, willow bark contained salicylic acid (substance very similar to aspirin), and quinine from bark was an effective treatment for malaria. Knowledge of appropriate use and dosage was poor. New regulations required the removal of the more outrageously dangerous contents from patent and proprietary medicines, and forced quack medicine proprietors to stop making some of their more blatantly dishonest claims.
In 1911, the reformers suffered a setback when the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Johnson that the prohibition of falsifications referred only to the ingredients of the medicine. Companies were again free to make false claims about their products. Adams returned to the attack with another series of articles in Collier’s Weekly, and a collection of his essays were published by the American Medical Association in 1912. That same year, congress responded by so U.S. v. Johnson with the Sherley Amendment to the Pure Food and Drug Act, which prohibited labeling medicines with false therapeutic claims intended to defraud the purchaser (a standard difficult to prove). Two years later, congress passed the Harrison Narcotic Act, imposing limits on the amount of opium, opium-derived products, and cocaine allowed in products available to the public. The law also required prescriptions for products exceeding the allowable limit of narcotics, and mandated increased record-keeping for physicians and pharmacists that dispense narcotics. Congress would again take up the issue during the New Deal legislative sessions of the 1930s.
With the advent of electricity in the United States in the first decades of the 20th Century, Quack electrical devices also were widely manufactured. Most devices used mild electrical current or ultraviolet light and, like their liquid and pill counterparts, promised a multitude of cures.
“The Meaning of Dreams”
This 32 page booklet, published around 1900, is actually a thinly disguised advertisement for Dr. Williams’ “Pink Pills for Pale People” (see the image of a roll of these pills below). Some of the booklet is an alphabetical listing of things people dream about, and what those dreams mean. The introduction states, “we suggest that this little book be retained for the amusement and pleasure it may afford, even though the reader may not treat the subject with the seriousness which it receives from many.” The rest of the book is filled with testimonials of product users whose stories, published as newpaper stories, confirm the miraculous healing powers of Pink Pills For Pale People.Diseases allegedly cured by this product include: Poor and Water Blook, Anemia, Chlorosis or Green Sickness, Dizziness, Palpitation of the Heart, Nervous Headahce, Loss of Appetite, Indigestion and Dyspepsia, After-Effects of the Grip, Eruptions and Pimples, Sick Headache, Pale or Sallow Complexion, Swelling of Hands or Feet, General Debility, Depression of Spirits, Insomnia or Loss of Sleep, General
Muscular Weakness, Shortness of Breath on Slight Exertion, Spinal Troubles, Partial Paralysis, Locomotor Ataxia, Chronic or Acute Rheumatism, Sciatica, Neuralgia, Chronic Erypsipelas, Catarrh of the Stomach, Nervous Fits, St. Vitus’ Dance, Swelled Glands, Scrofula, Fever Sores, Rickets, After-Effects of Acute Diseases such as Fevers, All Female Weakness, Tardy or Irregular Periods, Leucorrhea, Suppression of the Menses, Loss of Vital Forces, Loss of Memory, Ringing in the Ears, Hysteria, etc. The product was made from iron oxide and magnesium sulfate.
Scott Michael Rank, Ph.D., is the editor of History on the Net and host of the History Unplugged podcast. A historian of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey, he is a publisher of popular history, a podcaster, and online course creator.