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Nostrum Remedium: Bitters
An Extraordinarily Brief history of Patent Medicine
The term “snake oil salesmen,” the modern advertising industry (which, some might consider to be synonymous) and dozens of liquors and spirits owe their existence in our lexicon, on our televisions and behind countless bars to something prosaically referred to as patent medicines. Patent medicines were the early industrial age expressions of nostrum remedium, or, “our remedy” – various concoctions of secret ingredients, sold as miraculous cures, with varying degrees efficacy. Mid-19th century pushers of snake oil liniment claimed their product would cure everything from arthritis to dropsy. It didn’t; and a pejorative was born. Lest these liniment salesmen take all the blame, let it be known that outrageous claims weren't restricted to the snake oil marketing department. Competition amongst patent medicine producers was fierce. Thus, the task at hand for pioneers in advertising was to differentiate their products, or, in other words, to create a brand. As a result of advertising’s big bang, products such as Mug-wump Specific were born. Mug-wump was touted as a, “cure and preventative for all venereal diseases.” Not to be outdone, Bonnore’s “electro magnetic bathing fluid” was hailed as a cure for necrosis, epilepsy, cholera, scarlet fever and something called “mercurial eruptions.” It’s nice to see that ad-men and ad-women aimed high right from the get-go. Aside from cure-alls for V.D. and speedy eruptions, many products of the patent medicine age made more believable claims. For example, Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper were introduced primarily as energy elixirs. While the paleo soft drink manufacturers duked it out on the pep-in-step front, one maker of an herb-based, alcohol-containing tonic went for the gut.