“Patent” Medications Were Often Laced with Alcohol

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and before the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in the United States in 1906, many drugs were sold directly to consumers with no controls or information about their content.  They were so-called patent medicines (which often were not patented,  confusingly)  and often they were heavily laced with alcohol. For example, Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound was 20 percent alcohol (40 proof),  as was Hall’s Tonic.  In addition,  syrups administered to sick or even teething children often contained alcohol or morphine (unbeknownst to the parents), and they were extremely dangerous and sometimes fatal for sick children. Manufacturers had no requirement to reveal any of the ingredients of their products, so if the product contained anything that might be objectionable to anyone (such as alcohol or narcotics),  that information was not provided on the label or anywhere in advertisements.

Many women, including some members of the strident,  anti-alcohol Woman’s Christian Temperance Union,  consumed Lydia Pinkham’s remedy for just about any ailment they had.  According to author John Parascandola,  in 1904 the editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal wrote to 50 Woman’s Christian Temperance Union members to find out if any of them used any patent medicines. He discovered that 75 percent of them used patent medicines with an alcohol content ranging from 1/8 to 1/2. They were not hypocrites; they really did not know what was in their “medicine.”

Parascandola says that alcohol was a common key ingredient in patent medicines that were called “bitters.”  For example,  Hostetter’s bitters included about 40 percent alcohol (80 proof)  as well as some herbs.  Ironically,  Mr.  Hostetter was allegedly a temperance supporter, but he rationalized that he needed to include alcohol as both a solvent and preservative.

Another popular potion,  the Balm of Gilead, was 70 percent alcohol,  and it was a remedy endorsed by some members of the clergy. (Again, it is highly unlikely that they were aware of the high alcohol content of the drug.)

The term “patent medicine” is associated with drug compounds in the 18th and 19th centuries, sold with colorful names and bogus claims of curing a
universe of ailments. 

In ancient times, such medicines were called nostrum remedium, “our remedy” in Latin, hence the name “nostrum.” Also known as proprietary medicines,
these concoctions were, for the most part, trademarked medicines but not patented.

Patent medicines originally referred to medications whose ingredients had been granted government protection.  But actually, the recipes of most 19th
century patent medicines were not patented. Most producers used ingredients quite similar to their competitors—vegetable extracts laced with ample
doses of alcohol. These proprietary, or “quack” medicines could be deadly, since there was no regulation on their ingredients. They were medicines with
questionable effectiveness whose contents were kept secret.

Originating in England as proprietary medicines manufactured under grants, or “patents of royal favor,” to those who provided medicine to the Royal
Family, these medicines were exported to America in the 18th century. Daffy’s Elixir Salutis for “colic and griping,” Dr. Bateman’s Pectoral Drops, and John
Hooper’s Female Pills were some of the first English patent medicines to arrive in North America with the first settlers. The medicines were sold by
postmasters, goldsmiths, grocers, tailors and other local merchants.

It should also be mentioned that most physicians opposed the use of patent medications,  but they did not have the power to ban their use.  It is probably also true that their patients did not tell their doctors about their use of these drugs, particularly if their doctor expressed any negative views toward them.

A Popular Patent Medicine

Patent medicines flourished in the United States from the start. They were most popular in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Perhaps the best-known and most enduring among these was Lydia E. Pinkham’s “Vegetable Compound.” This remedy was devised by Mrs. Lydia Estes Pinkham (1819-1883) of Lynn, Massachusetts, to cure “female complaints.” Mrs. Pinkham had been preparing her herbal concoction on her kitchen stove for years. The recipe was supposedly given to her by a machinist in payment of a debt. When the Pinkham fell into near poverty following the panic of 1873, Pinkham’s son Dan suggested selling the compound. She produced the remedy and wrote advertising copy, along with a four-page booklet titled Guide for Women.

When the Pinkhams began advertising in the Boston Herald in 1876, a successful mail-order business flourished. When Pinkham’s portrait was added to the Compound’s label in 1879, sales escalated, and she became the most recognized woman in America. Letters poured in from women all over the country seeking medical advice. Their queries were answered by a staff of women supervised by Pinkham. The business remained in the Pinkham family until 1968, and the Compound was still being marketed in the 1980s.

After the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act and the legal requirement to reveal the ingredients of drugs to consumers,  the sales of patent medications eventually fell off. It is interesting to note as a point of comparison, however, that in the 21st century,  many consumers spend large sums purchasing unregulated, “alternative” herbal remedies,  often not discussing these purchases with their physicians. Apparently the hope for quick-fix miracle cures for many disorders is still present in modern-day society.


Mark S. Gold, M.D. and Christine Adamec



  1. Amethyst Initiative.  Statement.  Available online.  Accessed March 1, 2009.
  2. Beirness,  Douglas J.,  and Erin E.  Beasley.  Alcohol and Drug Use Among Drivers: British Columbia Roadside Survey, 2008. Ottawa, Ontario: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse, 2009.
  3. Berridge,  Virginia,  and Sarah Mars.  “History of Addictions.”  Journal of Epidemiology and Public Health 58 (2003): 747–750.
  4. Blanco,  Carlos,  M.D.,  et al.  “Mental Health of College Students and Their Non-College-Attending Peers: Results from the National Epidemiologic Study on Alcohol and Related Conditions.”  Archives of General Psychiatry 65, no. 12 (2008): 1,429–1,437.
  5. Blocker,  Jack S.,  Jr.  “Did Prohibition Really Work: Alcohol Prohibition as a Public Health Innovation.” American Journal of Public Health 96,  no.  2 (2006): 233–243.

Full References  »


Provided by ArmMed Media