Traveling Medicine Shows

Traveling Medicine Shows were popular primarily between 1850 and 1930 in the US, composed of traveling groups entertainers whose shows were interspersed with sales pitches peddling miracle cures, elixirs and other various products of a dubious nature.

The predecessor to the traveling American medicine man was the European mountebank, well known throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance for selling their medicinal wares at fairs, street corners, or wherever they could gather a crowd. Shows were structured around entertainers who could draw an audience who would listen to, and then undoubtedly purchase, the medicines offered by the "doctor”. The 1870s, however, represented a shift towards a more Americanized version of the mountebank.

In late nineteenth-century America, physicians were scarce and poorly educated. Treatments were based on the theory of the four bodily humors that had to be kept in balance (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile). These might include bleeding with live leeches, freezing cold baths, blistering agents, and other remedies that were worse than the ailments that they were meant to treat. The patent medicine industry had begun to take hold of the medical field in America, producing cheap and convenient remedies for all manners of illnesses. Consequently, the mountebank became their spokesperson and brand ambassador. This meant that the mountebank had to alter their simple sales pitch into "a patent medicine extravaganza", complete with theater, dance, music and other forms of entertainment. Many people placed their faith in patent medicines, pitched by these charismatic traveling salesmen who never failed to entertain the crowds before offering their cure-alls.

The arrival of a patent medicine shows was heavily advertised prior to the event with posters and banners displaying the time and place of the show and tickets for admission. Often the patent medicine shows were held right on the street, attracting every passerby. Sometimes the shows were so large that halls or hotels were booked for the troupe of entertainers, which might be enacted several times throughout the day and evening.

Although the medicine show's primary purpose was to sell products and make money, they also provided entertainment to the rural masses. Some offerings might include a freak show, a flea circus, musical acts, magic tricks, comedy, or storytelling. Each show was run by a man posing as a doctor who drew the crowd with a monologue. The entertainers, such as acrobats, musclemen, magicians, dancers, ventriloquists, exotic performers, and trick shots, kept the audience engaged until the salesman sold his medicine. The performers' job was to pull in crowds and make them feel indebted to the show, increasing the likelihood for purchases. A show was about 45% entertainment, 45% spieling, and a paltry 10% was left for something resembling a medicine, curative, elixir, etc. Since medicinal quality played a very small part in the medicine shows, the doctor’s technique was paramount.

Some of the more interesting additions made to the medicine show were the temperance and morality plays. Comedic sketches were always a part of the show, drawing directly from Minstrel Shows and Vaudeville Acts. However, as the temperance movement grew and Southern religious fervor stayed strong, medicine showmen realized they needed to tap into these sentiments in order to increase sales. The shows would incorporate the message, “sobriety as a pathway to God”, into their acts which highlighted the dangers of drinking and the strength of religion. This would later be incorporated into the sales pitch of the medicine, stating that it could serve as a replacement for these dangerous liquors. They were right in many ways, most clearly in that alcohol and other narcotics were a major ingredient in most patent medicines.

When the time came for the big moment that everyone had been waiting for at the conclusion of the exhibition, the medicine man would either flee the scene before the audience had time to realize he was gone, or neglect to actually give a legitimate demonstration. If there was any sort of demonstration that seemed to verify that the product worked, it was almost always a pre-planned stunt involving a member of the medicine show team posing as an audience member. When the show was over, the crowd was left with plenty of the product, but no actual remedies.

Most shows had their own patent medicines (these medicines were for the most part un-patented but took the name to sound official). Most of these medicines were at best harmless; through many contained generous quantities of alcohol, opium, or cocaine, ensuring a quick feeling of well-being for first-time customers, followed by the possibility of habitual use. Snake oil medicine was usually kerosene or coal oil blended with eucalyptus and mustard oil and used externally. Often, these remedies and elixirs were manufactured and bottled in the same wagon in which the show traveled.

Some notable tinctures were: Fatoff Obesity Cream, Make-Man Tablets, Pabst Extract, and Anti-Morbific Liver and Kidney Tonic. Also touted for "weak hearts, weak blood, weak nerves" was a product called Anglo-American Heart Remedy. Also, Dr. Bonker's Celebrated Egyptian Oil was available for "colic, cramps in the stomach and bowels, and cholera." When someone once asked Doc Kilmer what his Swamp Root was good for and he replied, `about $150,000 a year.’ Most of these fraudulent medicines were abandoned and eradicated when the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 was passed that required proprietors to list all ingredients and reveal all relevant facts about their remedies. This also led to regulating medical devices, also a long-time medicine show staple.