By Ginny A. Roth
Whereas the statement from Dr. Seth Arnold Medical Company on this late 19th century advertisement, “we are all liable to catch a cold at any moment” is true, the makers of Dr. Seth Arnold’s Cough Killer do not explicitly describe how the medicine will cure consumers of their ailments. This innocently-illustrated patent medicine trade card, featuring an angelic-looking child holding a puppy, advertises a cough remedy for which they state, “the constantly increasing sale and the satisfaction it gives demonstrates its absolute merit.” From this information, and a few questionable testimonials, the public was meant to assume the concoction was a cure for their cough.
Patent medicines were in fact rarely patented, still, the term came to refer to the rising number of mysterious remedies that were available to consumers without a doctor’s prescription. During the second half of the 19th century, when patent medicines became a major industry in America, manufactures of such medicines were not required to prove any claims about the efficacy of their products, nor were they required to list their ingredients. Because of this unregulated marketplace, manufacturers of patent medicines could make any curative claim they wished and keep their drug contents a secret.
This was extraordinarily dangerous to the general public who took these claims at face-value. Many manufacturers were using narcotics as the primary ingredients in their drugs, giving consumers the false impression that they were getting better or even cured. Common ingredients including cocaine, opiates, and alcohol generally caused the therapeutic effects of the drugs, and while these often did cause people to “feel better” they did not necessarily address the illness itself. The addictive nature of the ingredients also encouraged passionate support and promotion of patent medicines by those who used them. Unfortunately, many of the manufacturers targeted children on their advertisements, such as Dr. Seth Arnold’s Cough Killer, in which the active ingredient was morphine, a highly-addictive opioid.
It wasn’t until 1906 when President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drug Act into law that drug manufacturers were required to print active ingredients on packaging labels. The law also prohibited exaggerated and deceptive claims about a drug’s effectiveness.
Today, morphine and other opioid overdoses continue to be a problem despite controlled substance regulations. As of December 2016, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reported that hospital admissions related to opioid overdoses rose 64 percent in the United States between 2005 and 2014. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that nearly half of all U.S. opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription opioid, and that 1,000 people a day are treated in emergency departments for misusing prescription opioids. Opioid abuse is a serious public health issue in the United States, and is being addressed by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) through the HHS Opioid Initiative, which began in 2015.
A collection of patent medicine trade cards can viewed in the Images from the History of Medicine Database (IHM) in NLM’s Digital Collections. A list of patent medicine almanacs available in the Library’s collection can be viewed in NLM’s online exhibition, Time, Tide, and Tonics, the Patent Medicine Almanac in America.