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History Unraveled: We’ve Got a Bone to Pick with Patent Medicine

Looking for a new medicine to help your cold and flu symptoms?

Looking for a new medicine to help your cold and flu symptoms? 100 years ago, you might have visited your local drug store for a patent medicine like Hill’s Bromide Cascara Quinine, as seen in this advert in the Greenbrier Independent from January 28th , 1921. This medication is advertised as a relief for colds, coughs, and la grippe (influenza). To combat cold and flu symptoms, the medicine includes quinine, most commonly known as an anti-malarial, bromide, used as a sedative and headache remedy, and cascara, used as a laxative. (It’s also important to note the “No Opiate in Hill’s”, as by the 1920’s public pressure against the use of opiates and alcohol was rising).

The first patent medicines, medications available “over the counter” without a prescription, were developed in the late 17th century.

The first patent medicines, medications available “over the counter” without a prescription, were developed in the late 17th century. These medications became most popular in the United States during the late 19 th century. Patent medicine during this period benefited from the growth in industrialization and a lack of drug regulation, often including ingredients like alcohol or opiates while promising cures to a variety of ailments. It was not until 1906, when Congress passed The Pure Food and Drug Act, that companies were prohibited from making false claims of cures. In fact, earlier advertisements for the same Hill’s Bromide Cascara Quinine made claims to “cure” colds, but by 1921 the company could no longer legally make these claims.

Today, over-the-counter medications are much safer than what you may have found a hundred years ago…

Today, over-the-counter medications are much safer than what you may have found a hundred years ago, thanks to better science and stricter regulations. However, some of the most popular brands found in your local pharmacy had their start in this period of patent medicine. Some products, like Vick’s vapor rub, are still used for medicinal purposes today, while others, like Coca-Cola, are no longer thought of as medicinal. Take a look around your house and see what remnants of patent medicines you may have lying around!

– By Abigail Smith – Greenbrier Historical Society Museum AmeriCorps Member. Hashtag Lewisburg City Paper. January 2021.

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