An illustratration of a man bowing to a woman under a canopy in the desert in silhouette.

The Lay of the Lonesome Lung, 1881

By Krista Stracka

Since the end December, the aisles of most drug stores have been awash in red and pink products in anticipation of today, Valentine’s Day, a holiday often expressed through gift-giving—a retailer’s favorite tradition. The flood of love-themed commercials, advertisements, circulars, billboards, and clickbait pour in on every side through today hopeful to tempt the procrastinators among us as we rush to find last-minute presents for our friends and loved ones.

Patent medicine proprietors of the nineteenth century are often credited as the pioneers of the use of large-scale advertisement campaigns to connect with consumers in any location. Seth W. Fowle & Sons was just one proprietor among many challenged with promoting the name of their own products above those of the competition. One such product—Wistar’s Balsam of Wild Cherry—was first created around 1840 by a Dr. Henry Wistar of Virginia. A concoction of cherry extract, alcohol, and opiates, the Balsam was heavily marketed by yearly almanacs and trade cards as a cure for any throat, chest, and lung disease, including consumption. Despite criticism from fellow physicians and pharmacists, many like Dr. Wistar chose to join the highly profitable industry. Demand for over-the-counter and less-invasive methods of care had increased as treatment from qualified physicians was costly, difficult to obtain, and sometimes quite painful.

Recently added to NLM’s Medicine in the Americas digital collection is an 1881 pamphlet advertisement issued by Seth W. Fowle & Sons that incorporates Dr. Wistar as a character. Illustrated with silhouettes like those of a shadow box, The Lay of the Lonesome Lung features a humorous poem about a man named Bung on his quest to save his one working lung. After rejecting the advice of Dr. Wistar to use his Balsam, Bung embarks on a voyage to escape the ministrations of his doctors (including Dr. Wistar). Many of the illustrated scenes showcase the way marketers capitalized on advancing print technologies to experiment with sales techniques. In addition to testimonials in Rome and painted pyramids in Egypt, Bung is bombarded by large printed posters, sandwich boards, and banners that offer the very same advice offered by Dr. Wistar. He meets a lovely maiden, only to hear about Wistar’s Balsam from her as well. He flees, will he lose both health and love?

In the spirit of the holiday, this before-and-after tale does with end with two pairs: Bung gets the girl and both lungs are restored after he comes to his senses and uses Wistar’s Balsam of Wild Cherry!

You can read and download the pamphlet The Lay of the Lonesome Lung in NLM Digital Collections. In addition to this illustrated poem, the pamphlet contains glowing descriptions of Wistar’s Balsam of Wild Cherry and testimonials from doctors, government and civic leaders, and newspapers as well as an advertisement and testimonials for Peruvian Syrup, another patent medicine from the same company.

Portrait of Krista StrackaKrista Stracka is a Rare Book Cataloger for the Rare Books and Early Manuscripts Section in the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

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