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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.

Bottle of "Microbe Killer", c.1880s. "Germ, Bacteria, or Fungus Destroyer, Wm. Radam's Microbe Killer Registered Trade Mark Dec. 13 1887 Cures All Diseases"
Bottle of “Microbe Killer” c. 1880s (2 views)
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.

Collier’s Weekly featuring “The Great American Fraud” article by Samuel Hopkins Adams
Advertisements & Products
Absorbine, Jr.
Absorbine, Jr., Scribner’s Magazine, May 1917
Allen's Lung Balsam
Allen’s Lung Balsam ad, 1884
Bailey's Teething Ring (and other hygiene items listed)
Bailey’s Teething Ring (and other hygiene items listed), Century Illustrated Monthly, December 1889
Balsam of Boneset
Balsam of Boneset (cures all cough and lung diseases)
Barry's Tricopherous
Barry’s Tricopherous, Century Illustrated Monthly, May 1893
Beecham's Pills
Beecham’s Pills, Harper’s Monthly, January 1890
Beecham's Pills
Beecham’s Pills, Scribner’s Magazine, May 1891
Bell-Cap-Sic Plasters
Bell-Cap-Sic Plasters, Scribner’s Magazine, January 1894
Blair's PillsBlair’s Pills, Harper’s Monthly, September 1900 Bloxam's Electric Hair Restorer
Bloxam’s Electric Hair Restorer, c.1890
Brown's Bronchial Troches
Brown’s Bronchial Troches, Century Illustrated Monthly, April 1885
Burnham's Tonic
Burnham’s Tonic, Country Gentleman Magazine, February 1894
Case's SyrupCase’s Syrup, c.1890 Crosby Brain Food
Crosby Brain Food, Scribner’s Magazine, June 1882
Cuticura, Century Illustrated Monthly, January 1890
Dr. Ayer's Pectoral Plaster
Dr. Ayer’s Pectoral Plaster, Harper’s Monthly, January 1898
Dr. Bridgeman's Ring
Dr. Bridgeman’s Ring, Scribner’s Magazine, December 1892
Dr. Marshall's Catarrh Cure
Dr. Marshall’s Catarrh Cure, Scribner’s Monthly, March 1887
Dr. Scott's Electric BeltDr. Scott’s Electric Belt, Century Illustrated Monthly, April 1884 Dr. Scott's Electric Corset & Belts
Dr. Scott’s Electric Corset & Belts, Century Illustrated Monthly, September 1886
Dr. Scott's Electric Foot Salve
Dr. Scott’s Electric Foot Salve, Century Illustrated Monthly, May 1889
Dr. Scott's Electric Hair Brush
Dr. Scott’s Electric Hair Brush, Scribner’s Magazine, July 1898
Dr. Scott's Electric Plaster
Dr. Scott’s Electric Plaster, Century Illustrated Monthly, December 1888
German Asthma Cure
German Asthma Cure, March 1887
Groff Malaria Cure
Groff Malaria Cure, Century Illustrated Monthly, May 1885
Harter's Iron Tonic
Harter’s Iron Tonic Victorian Trade Card (2 views) 
Metcalf's Coca Wine
Metcalf’s Coca Wine, Century Illustrated Monthly, June 1888
Microbe Killer Jug Advertisment
Microbe Killer Jug Advertisement (2 views)
Mrs. Winslow's Syrup
Mrs. Winslow’s Syrup, Cosmopolitan Magazine, July 1900
Nicholl's Compound Syrup
Nicholl’s Compound Syrup of Blackberry Victorian Trade Card
Dr. H Sache's Oxydonor "Victory"
Dr. H Sache’s Oxydonor “Victory”, Scribner’s Magazine, July 1898
Roll of Dr. Hinkle's "Pill Cascara Cathartic"
Roll of Dr. Hinkle’s “Pill Cascara Cathartic”
Paine's Celery Compound
Paine’s Celery Compound, Scribner’s Magazine, April 1884
Pectoria, c.1890
Piso's Consumption Cure
Piso’s Consumption Cure, Harper’s Monthly, July 1891
Pond's Extract
Pond’s Extract, Century Illustrated Monthly, January 1886
Ridge's Food
Ridge’s Food, Century Illustrated Monthly, July 1886
Scott's Emulsion
Scott’s Emulsion, Century Illustrated Monthly, February 1896
Sexual System & its Derangements
Sexual System & its Derangements (2 views)
Syrup of Figs
Syrup of Figs, Harper’s Monthly, July 1891
Dr. Watson's Worm Syrup
Dr. Watson’s Worm Syrup, c.1890
Collier's Weekly with Dangerous Drugs Cover, May 13, 1912
Collier’s Weekly with Dangerous Drugs Cover, May 13, 1912
The Meaning of Dreams
The Meaning of Dreams Advertising Pamphet
“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.

View the complete pamphlet, “The Meaning of Dreams”

Roll of Pink Pills For Pale People
Roll of Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People (2 views)

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"Quackery: A Brief History of Quack Medicines & Peddlers" History on the Net
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July 13, 2024 <https://www.historyonthenet.com/quackery-brief-history-quack-medicines-peddlers>
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