The Tyranny of Patent Medicines

If you’ve ever suffered from a clogged liver, blood in need of purifying, or an undernourished brain, this is the blog for you. Modern medical professionals have made incredible advances in clinical practice and new lifesaving drugs. It’s doubtful, however, that they are any more enthusiastic or confident about their abilities than their predecessors and one-time competitors, the manufacturers of patent medicines. With products named Orangeine, Curolene, Electric Liniment, Angel’s Oil, Reliable Worm Syrup, and White Star Secret Liquor Cure, these purveyors of health and vitality descended upon the American public in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, promising to calm every cough, move every bowel, shrink every tumor, and destroy every bunion in the entire nation. That is, provided the consumer would kindly ask for their product at their local druggist or send an order in by mail.

Patent medicines such as

Patent medicines such as “Father John’s Medicine,” “Retonga Tonic,” and “Swamp Root” on the shelf at Hicks Drug Store in Tallahassee (1961).

Patent medicines, sometimes called “nostrums,” have been around for a very long time. In ancient days, Latin speakers referred to such medicines as “nostra remedia,” or “our remedies.” In all cultures, people have experimented with various ways of healing illnesses of all sorts, from pain to itching to cosmetic issues to respiratory distress and sexual impotence. Often, the impetus for this experimentation has been a very noble desire to alleviate the pain or discomfort of loved ones or humanity in general. Producing remedies can also, however, be a very lucrative business.

Advertisement for Hires' Improved Root Beer, including claims that it

Advertisement for Hires’ Improved Root Beer, including claims that it “purifies the blood.” Notice the ad calls this a “temperance beverage,” a nod to the fact that in some parts of the state a movement was afoot to prohibit the sale and manufacturing of alcohol (circa 1900).

In the 18th and 19th centuries, advancements in packaging and advertisement made it possible for makers of patent medicines to promote their products far and wide and capture the interest of a broad audience. With mainstream medicine still lacking full understanding of even some basic diseases and conditions, suffering patients were often open to trying patent medicines they found in the drug store or the newspaper. It was almost impossible to know whether a product had truly been tested for effectiveness (or toxicity) or even endorsed by anyone with any medical training at all. With virtually no laws governing the manufacture and sale of pills, elixirs, and other remedies, advertisers could essentially make up whatever they wanted about the product. After all, they frequently said, they were more than happy to refund the purchase price if the product didn’t work.

Broadside for Tydings'

Broadside for Tydings’ “Turpentine Man’s” Remedy (1939).

And that’s the kicker. Patent medicines often did work, although usually not by doing what they were advertised to do. They often contained high doses of alcohol, cocaine, morphine, or opium, all of which were generally legal to possess and mix into medicines at this time. It’s hard to say whether a patient’s heart palpitations, fever, or unpleasant digestive problems were really solved by the elixir they swallowed, but then again how could they tell? After a healthy dose of this or that miracle potion, they were probably in too pleasant a fog to stand up, let alone contemplate pain.

A page from the diary of Dr. John M.W. Davidson of Gadsden County, containing recipes for various mixtures he used for patients. Click on the image to view more of the diary and a transcript.

A page from the diary of Dr. John M.W. Davidson of Gadsden County, containing recipes for various mixtures he used for patients. Click on the image to view more of the diary and a transcript.

In earlier days, physicians were little help in combating the problem. They themselves were unsure in many cases how to bring their patients relief, and they frequently turned to some of the same intoxicating ingredients used in patent medicines. As medical knowledge increased and practitioners began organizing themselves and standardizing their practices, they began criticizing the patent medicine manufacturers. Doctors argued that while patent medicines did not cure illnesses, they did discourage patients from seeking legitimate medical care, and in some cases caused them to descend into dependency on alcohol and other addictive drugs.

The potion makers did not go quietly. As pressure mounted, they enlisted the support of the newspaper industry, which received a hefty amount of revenue from patent medicine advertisements. Over time, however, lawmakers opted to err on the side of safety. State laws began requiring products claiming medicinal properties to disclose their ingredients. In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, granting the government authority to place tighter regulations on food and drug labeling and advertising.

Margaret B. Barry and her son Bill at the family drug store, Suwannee Drug Company, in Newberry (photo circa 1908).

Margaret B. Barry and her son Bill at the family drug store, Suwannee Drug Company, in Newberry (photo circa 1908).

Today, in Florida and across the nation, strict laws and procedures tightly control the availability of many of the ingredients that once made patent medicines so potentially dangerous. Various “cures” and homeopathic remedies still exist, and many swear by them, but compared to the “liver salts, “stomach bitters,” and other elixirs of yesteryear, they are much safer to use.

What’s the craziest sounding cure-all you’ve ever seen? Tell us about it by leaving a comment, and don’t forget to share our post with your friends on Facebook!

Florida’s Juke Joints

In the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, if you had plenty of money and a city’s worth of entertainment at your disposal, you might have chosen to spend your Friday evening at the movies, a night club, or a high-quality restaurant. If, however, you were in rural Florida and looking for something a little less formal and a heap less expensive, you were more likely to drive out to the local juke joint.

Example of a juke joint in Jacksonville (September 1954).

Example of a juke joint in Jacksonville (September 1954).

The name “juke joint” was given to the hundreds of dive bars similar to the one pictured above that once appeared all over the state during the early to mid-20th century. They were especially prevalent in rural areas, near sawmills, turpentine camps, and other places with lots of everyday folks who might want to relax a bit without having to get too dressed up to do it.

Interior of a juke joint in Jacksonville (September 1954).

Interior of a juke joint in Jacksonville (September 1954).

The origin of the term “juke” is somewhat in dispute, but in Stetson Kennedy’s Palmetto Country, he explains that African-Americans first developed these establishments, since they were barred from saloons and other entertainment venues operated by whites. After Prohibition ended in 1933, however, juke joints for whites began to appear as well.

This juke joint was operated out of the home of a Tallahassee resident (photo April 4, 1959).

This juke joint was operated out of the home of a Tallahassee resident (photo April 4, 1959).

As newspaper accounts and former patrons often explain, juke joints were distinguished by their relaxed, laissez-faire atmosphere. Here, once away from downtown and out from under the all-seeing gaze of the public eye, both men and women could let their hair down a bit and enjoy a few drinks, loud music, and the sort of lowbrow entertainment that might have sent their mothers into a fainting spell.

Two couples enjoy themselves at a juke joint near Belle Glade (January 1939).

Two couples enjoy themselves at a juke joint near Belle Glade (January 1939).

Depending on the place and time, the music came either from a jukebox or a live performance, and there was usually someplace to dance. The kind of music played depended on the source and the crowd. If the joint had a jukebox, the crowd might select anything from Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” to Frank Sinatra’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” – whatever was popular at the time. If live music was available, blues, country, or jazz might be the order of the day. Blues music was particularly popular in juke joints operated for and by African-Americans, featuring songs with titles like “Mistreatin-Mama,” “Rattlesnake Daddy,” and Drinkin My Blues Away.” A number of Florida’s blues and folk personalities, such as Marie Buggs and “Washboard” Bill Cooke, got their start playing in juke joints.

William

William “Washboard Bill” Cooke with cymbals and his signature washboard. During Cooke’s early childhood, his mother operated a juke joint, where the young Cooke was first exposed to music and dance (photo 1993).

Blues musician Marie Buggs performs at the 1985 Folk Heritage Awards.

Blues musician Marie Buggs performs at the 1985 Folk Heritage Awards.

The names of these watering holes reflected their no-frills character. Most were simply named for their owners, such as Benny’s Place near Brooksville, and Baker Bryan’s, just south of the Florida-Georgia border on U.S. 1 near Hilliard. Others were named more creatively, or at least nicknamed creatively, as was the case with the Bucket of Blood at Jug Island in Taylor County, and the Mystery Ship near Sarasota. The signs that hung in some of these establishments were as colorful as the names. Most were designed to ward off some of the bad behavior that often occurred, including fighting, swearing, and stretching credit just a little too far. Below is a list Stetson Kennedy typed in the 1930s of some of the juke joint signs he encountered while traveling the state as a folklorist for the Florida Federal Writers’ Project.

A page from Stetson Kennedy's notes on juke joints. This and a variety of other resources relating to the Florida Federal Writers' Program are available in Series 1585 (Stetson Kennedy Folklife Collection) at the State Archives of Florida.

A page from Stetson Kennedy’s notes on juke joints. This and a variety of other resources relating to the Florida Federal Writers’ Program are available in Series 1585 (Stetson Kennedy Folklife Collection) at the State Archives of Florida.

While weary laborers and the younger crowd in general found juke joints to be a convenient form of relaxation, parents, teachers, the clergy, and law enforcement often considered them a nuisance at best and an ominous threat to the morals of the community at worst. The correspondence of Florida’s governors contains numerous examples of telegrams, letters, and resolutions calling for some kind of action to counteract the bad influence of these establishments on youth and workers. Local and state law enforcement officials did raid and shut down juke joints from time to time, usually on the suspicion of prostitution or selling liquor illegally.

A telegram to Governor Guller Warren from concerned citizen John Richardson (December 1951).

A telegram to Governor Fuller Warren from concerned citizen John Richardson (December 1951).

Despite the trouble associated with juke joints, the concept was popular, and at one time even attracted the attention of Hollywood. In 1942, Warner Brothers released “Juke Girl,” featuring Ann Sheridan as a Florida juke joint hostess, along with Alan Hale, Richard Whorf, and Ronald Reagan. Yes, that Ronald Reagan.

Times have changed, and most of the juke joints of old have changed considerably or shut down entirely. This is not to say, of course, that cutting loose and having a good time ever went out of style. But “juking” the way it once was done in the seedier but livelier places of Florida back in those days is fast becoming the stuff of history.

Do you have photographs of a Florida juke joint? Were you ever a participant in the festivities? Tell us about it by leaving a comment!