10 Bizarre Patent Medicines

If you’re like us and enjoy wasting time
on the internet, you’re probably well aware of patent medicines. According to the Smithsonian’s National
Museum of American History, patent medicines were first produced as special remedies in
England in the late 17th century, with “letters patent” granted by the royal crown to give
monopolies to the manufacturers. In time, people started using the phrase “patent
medicines” to refer to any old over-the-counter drug. American colonists, inspired by British druggists,
began peddling their own patent medicines, and the cure-all, instant-fix craze reached
its peak from about 1850 to 1900. Many patent medicines are easy targets for
humor thanks to dangerous ingredients like heroin and morphine. Things changed a bit after the U.S. government
cracked down with the Food and Drugs Act in 1906, and you started seeing products like
this baby medicine with a label touting the fact that it “contains no opiates.” Suddenly, relative safety became a selling
point. And, in fact, the use of harmful ingredients
early on had created a whole new market for more patent medicines that purported to cure
people of the addictions they’d developed. For the most part, however, this list is not
about those kinds of patent medicines. It’s about the ones with the most bizarre
names and backstories we could find – the ones you don’t hear much about. 10. Uncle Ben Jo’s Bell Tongue Syrup Let’s dive right in with a concoction that
sounds and looks kind of like it was dreamed up by a crazy man deep in the sticks of South
America. It sounds and looks like that because it was. Uncle Ben Jo, whoever he was, hit the market
in the 1870s with a wondrous potion called Bell Tongue Syrup, which he reportedly derived
from the Andean bell-tongue plant, whatever that was. Bell Tongue Syrup, as prepared by our fearless
bald and bearded hero, could cure most anything affecting a human in the 19th century. From the bottle’s label we learn that flatulency,
brain diseases, tumors, and even epilepsy could all be positively reversed with no more
than a half teaspoon taken thrice daily. Just for good measure, the label threw in
“general debility” to make sure every ailment under the sun was covered. For several years, issues of the American
Agriculturist featured the rants of editors who’d been bombarded with reader letters
about quack medicines and were sick of it. The September section of Volume 32 (1873)
sarcastically describes “dear old Uncle Ben Jo” and states that “no botanist ever
saw anything like” his so-called bell-tongue plant. A year later, and probably a good deal more
frustrated, the editors called the subject “shallow nonsense.” And then, in the 1876 issue, they celebrated
the fact that for months nobody had come forward with the next great medicinal remedy that
would heal everyone from everything. Hopefully they enjoyed their brief respite,
because there were still a lot of years’ worth of dubious patent medicines ahead of
them. 9. Zoa-Phora Now we turn to Zoa-Phora, formerly called
Dr. Pengelly’s Woman’s Friend. This helpful product was brewed up in Kalamazoo,
Michigan, “for all forms of female weakness” and was a hit for a few decades starting around
1870. According to the October 2010 Kalamazoo Antique
Bottle Club News, it contained enough alcohol to qualify as liquor. But the interesting part here isn’t the
alcohol; it’s the fact that Dr. Pengelly’s wife, Mary, was a key player in Kalamazoo’s
Christian temperance movement. Perhaps she was not such a fan of her husband’s
Woman’s Friend? A treasure hunter dug up a lead printing plate
for a 19th-century Zoa-Phora advertisement, and was later able to locate an ad it had
been used to print in an 1882 issue of The Marshall Statesman. Turns out it offered three glowing reviews
of the remedy/booze, one of which claimed total relief from 16 years of spasmodic headaches
and nervous exhaustion in less than two hours. “What Zoa Phora won’t do for womankind
no medicine will,” boasts an ad from The Ann Arbor Argus in 1895. Sure thing, doc. 8. Dr. Shoop’s Green Salve Clarendon I. Shoop had a good thing going
in Racine, Wisconsin, with a little business he called Dr. Shoop’s Family Medicine Company
(later Dr. Shoop Laboratories). Green Salve, an ointment for the lips and
skin, was one of many remedies and cures Shoop sold with great success at his medicine shop. Imagine for a moment smearing yourself with
green stuff made by some dude named Shoop. Who in the world would not want to do that? It “makes lips and skin like velvet,”
after all. “To have beautiful, pink, velvet-like lips,
apply at bedtime a coating of Dr. Shoop’s Green Salve,” commands an ad in a 1906 issue
of The Tazewell Republican, although honestly we would expect our lips to turn green instead
of pink. As did many makers of patent medicines, Shoop
relied on aggressive advertising to promote his products, at one point partnering with
copywriting legend Claude C. Hopkins for a nationwide direct-mail campaign. But the thing that set Shoop apart from many
of the patent medicine pushers of his day (read: quacks) was the fact that he was an
actual physician. Even though some of his products did contain
alcohol and marijuana and the occasional poisonous plant, for the most part he legitimately wanted
to help people feel better, and tried to avoid addictive ingredients. “Dr. Shoop all along has bitterly opposed
the use of all opiates or narcotics,” reads another ad for his Cough Cure in that Republican
issue. 7. Moses Dame’s Wine of the Woods In case just hearing the words “Moses Dame’s
Wine of the Woods” didn’t strike fear into the hearts of men, the Moses Dame Company
of Danbury, Connecticut, made sure to include an illustration on its bottles confirming
that yes, this here beverage was brewed in a haunted fen and it will likely make you
crazy. No meat in this medicine; it’s “a purely
vegetable remedy for all diseases arising from derangement of stomach, liver, or blood.” One dollar a bottle; six for $5. Drink first and ask questions later, assuming
you’re still alive. The Moses Dame Company was, beginning in the
early 1870s, presided over by a certain Isaac “Ike” Ives, a member of the highly influential
Ives clan that owned and operated a smattering of successful businesses in Danbury over the
years. Ike was a bit eccentric; he once gave a speech
before the entire town pretending to be the traveler and lecturer George Francis “Express”
Train when the latter failed to show at the appointed time. (Ike apparently fooled the whole crowd.) “Where did you buy your lumber?” someone once asked, as reported by the local
newspaper in 1874. The response indicated Ike: “From that crazy
fellow at White Street bridge.” Maybe he’d been drinking too much of his
own medicine. 6. Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment The original snake oil salesmen were exactly
what the name says – people with bad intentions hawking various healing oils and remedies
supposedly made with actual snake oil. This particular practice was just another
instance of Americans taking something legit from another culture and ruining it. In this case, they ruined the snake oil remedies
brought from Asia by Chinese laborers working on the Transcontinental Railroad. The Chinese had actual snake oil medicine
that truly helped fight inflammation. It was made of oil from the Chinese water
snake, but since the Chinese water snake did not exist in the U.S. and therefore could
not be easily exploited by injudicious Americans, injudicious Americans simply went after something
else – the rattlesnake. Cure-all companies and entrepreneurs began
harvesting these innocent serpents for medicine during the 19th century. One man in particular stood out for his particularly
daft antics – Clark Stanley, who called himself the Rattlesnake King. Stanley made a name for himself at the 1893
World’s Columbian Expo in Chicago by murdering a bunch of snakes before a crowd, boiling
them, and using the fat to mix up a liniment right on the spot. “A wonderful pain destroying compound,”
this liniment. Except, as by now you’ve certainly guessed,
it was all just showmanship. Aside from maybe those few batches made in
Chicago, Clark Stanley’s Snake Oil Liniment had exactly zero percent snake oil. It also didn’t destroy pain. A decade after the Food and Drugs Act, the
feds finally got around to investigating this Stanley character, and they fined him $20
for falsely and fraudulently representing his product. Thanks in part to the efforts of Stanley and
the other original snake-oil salesmen, we now have a fine metaphor for referring to
men and women of dishonest caliber. 5. Fettle If you’ve been interested of late in feeling
like a good old-fashioned fighting cock, well, have we got the patent medicine for you. Ladies and gentlemen, introducing Fettle,
a superior tonic for the stomach, an ethical and efficable preparation! THE FOE OF INDIGESTION AND THE ALLY OF GOOD
HEALTH. And yes, it “makes you feel like a fighting
cock,” too. Basically everything a decent American would
need to dash through the Roaring Twenties and then pass out on the steps of the Great
Depression. (More on drunkenness in a bit.) The Gettysburg Times from Dec. 21, 1920, has
an excellent piece of medical advertising titled “When ‘Off Your Feed’: It’s
The World’s Stomach, Not Its Heart That Is Suffering” that proposes Fettle as the
final fix for the evils of indigestion. “When You’re fagged out, ‘off your feed’,
and your digestive apparatus fails to function properly, you can trace the trouble to indigestion.” This is a bad situation, the ad said, but
definitely not your fault. And also, did you know that in such condition
“poisonous substances are being forced into your blood” and “your whole system is
susceptible to attack by disease germs”? Fortunately there is Fettle for you, which
you are going to need if you plan on surviving 12 days of Christmas with the in-laws, not
to mention life in general. “Fettle is not a beverage,” the label
is careful to clarify. “Not a substitute for Alcoholic Stimulant.” Four lines later we find the warning: alcoholic
content 52% by volume. Yep, that’ll do it. 4. Kendall’s Spavin Cure for Human Flesh Now, with this one, you may be thinking something
along the lines of “What is wrong with human flesh and why do I need to be cured from it? And what is spavin?” Well, Merriam-Webster defines spavin as a
“swelling; especially a bony enlargement of the hock of a horse associated with strain.” Considering Kendall’s Spavin Cure by itself,
then, we have a medication for a horse’s swollen hind-leg joint. The “human flesh” part comes later. In the case of Dr. B.J. Kendall and his namesake
Enosburg Falls, Vermont, company, this patent medicine was marketed as a cure for various
ailments in racehorses and in humans. “Human flesh” simply indicates that the
bottle was intended for people. One ad specifies that the cure has been “Refined,
expressly for Human Flesh, in red wrappers … In light wrappers, for Animals … That
in light wrappers can be used with perfect safety on human flesh, if desired.” Then there are these stupendously racist trade
cards for Kendall’s Spavin Cure. Straight from the horse’s mouth: “In all
my ‘sperience in the hoss line I nebber seed sich ‘provement in a animile afore. Facts am stranger dan fiction.” Kendall himself did not do so well financially
in the long run, but his company thrived in small-town Enosburg, and was influential enough
for the local semipro baseball team to borrow its name – the Enosburg Falls Spavin Curers. 3. Marshmallow Health Pearls James May of Naugatuck, Connecticut, established
the Diamond Laboratory Company sometime in the late 19th century and started bottling
ginger ale as well as manufacturing a variety of delightful marshmallow-themed preparations. May is the man you can thank for Marshmallow
Health Pearls – and, later, May’s Health Pearls. May’s sweet little balls were marketed as
“the best remedy known for Biliousness, Sick Headache, Constipation and all Liver,
Stomach and Bowel Troubles.” And these “little Cathartic Pearls” were
reliable (or at least deliciously charming) enough to last more than 20 years on the patent
medicine market, “and no medicine could survive that period without real merit,”
according to Diamond Laboratory Co. Diamond Labs’ cash cow, however, was apparently
a different sugary bliss beverage called Marshmallow Cream. Don’t Starve Yourself, man. 2. 666 Salve Monticello Drug Company spent more than a
century manufacturing and marketing its line of “666” products for colds, coughs, aches,
and pains to customers across the country – even the ones who made fun of it for literally
branding itself with the Mark of the Beast. Deuce of Clubs had a jolly time of things
in 1994, pestering a customer service rep with questions and then writing a funny piece
about it. This action resulted in a complaint from certain
humorless persons at Monticello, and then later an apologetic and positive follow-up
from the president himself. In the process we learned how the company
decided to adopt its end-of-days name. As told by Monticello, the story goes back
to 1908 and the company’s beginnings. At that time in Jacksonville, Florida, Monticello
was just getting started and managed to produce a successful quinine medicine for fever and
malaria. The medicine worked out, and as fate would
have it the number on the very first order written was 666. People started asking for “that 666 product”
and Monticello, recognizing an opportunity to sell its soul to the devil for a hundred
years of business success, decided to just slap 666 on other products, too. “For minor burns, cuts and sores we know
of no finer dressing than 666 Salve.” – Monticello Drug Company, from hell 1. Dr. Fuller’s Electro Spiral Magnetic Vegetable
Vapor Cure The directions on Chicago’s Fuller & Fuller’s
mouthful of a patent medicine read as follows: “Uncork bottle and inhale vapor until the
head is clear. The effect is magical, giving instant relief. Price one dollar.” Then, all you had to do was put the cork back
in the bottle and slap yourself in the face a few times, because if inhaling the vapors
of a “perfectly magnetized” vegetable compound really kicked this much diseased
ass, then your mind has conjured a false reality and you need to get out, fast. The National Museum of American History notes
that this product was made from 1888 to 1906. Boy, we wonder what else happened in 1906? But no matter. Go wander a few aisles of vitamins and over-the-counter
drugs at your favorite big box or convenience store. We’re all still crazy.


  1. “Bell Tongue” sounds like something Yorkshire (England) veterinary Surgeon and Novelist James Herriot of “All Creatures Great and Small” fame would come across when dealing with dour faced, tight as a ducks chuff, Dales farmers describing some malady affecting the front end of a cow, and I hate to think what they would call something to do with the other end or how to apply such remedy as they could concoct. Excellent list TopTenz, thanks. 👍

  2. I'm half convinced mispronunciations are written into the script to inflate the comments section. The town of Enosburg in Vermont is pronounced with a long E, not a short one.

  3. Last I checked, the craze never ended and is still ongoing with opioids (basically heroin), homeopathic "remedies" and all other manner of terrible things

  4. Very funny and enlightening. Friends and I would play cards, go caving and rock climbing. We had a stoneware bottle on which was a picture (supposed to be a panther) it was labelled "pure panther piss". The contents were long gone.

  5. This text is still to this day on the jars of Smith's Rosebud Salve (registerd patent off march 10, 1906): "this is the originel and only rosebud salve and may be used as an all-purpose skin preperation" You can still buy it and mainly used as a lip balm

  6. … and because of this video, I did research and discovered that there is something called marshmallow root, which has nothing to do with the yummy marshmallows I put in my hot chocolate. Thanks, TopTenz!

  7. In '97 I was on holiday in north wales and had a chesty cough. I walked into the chemists on Bala high street and asked if he had anything for it. He pulled out a bottle of Gee's Linctus and sold it to me. I had nothing to measure the dose with, so just swigged it from the bottle. Soon I felt light headed and euphoric and wondered what was in this Gee's Linctus, so I peeled back the label and apparently it was 80% morphine :O

  8. omg I live in the town that published The Tazewell Republican! ahem Sorry, we're so small we're never mentioned in anything. lol

  9. I remember being given Shoop's green salve when I was a kid. It felt a bit like thinned out vaseline, had a weird, although not completely unpleasant taste and actually worked fairly well on chapped lips.

  10. I cast my vote for facts on Michigan, my home. A lot of weird and fantastic happenings have stemmed from this crazy little mitten.

  11. You could do a top ten on "misconceptions we've corrected but you probably only know the older, erroneous version".
    Here's your number one: the mark of the beast, is, apparently, according to the original text that was mistranslated (and then all the other ones made were based off of that translation) is…. 616.
    I think they found that out in…. 2012? Ish. Pretty recent, considering.

  12. The poster thing you have in the bottom right corner of the background makes your set look too busy. It starts to blend in and interfere with the info box that pops up in the top right corner. Would look a lot cleaner if you just left the bare bricks along the right side.

  13. 666 branded remedies from the original company were available in the nineties, and actually worked. 666 headache remedy fluid was banned in the early nineties as all remedies containing natural quinones were banned from OTC use due to side effects from long term quinine use. However, 666 cough remedy was still around in 1998 or so. It was basically OTC cough syrup without the thickening agents. It worked!

    BTW, if you still want to take natural quinine derivatives as medicine, many medications intended to treat saltwater fish for parasites and inflammation are available if you know where to look.

  14. There's a local pharmacy where I used to pick up my prescriptions that has all these old timey medicine bottles in display cases.

  15. Did you really just put your script up as evidence for how crazy Uncle Jo's Bell Tongue Plant is…? (2:47) I'm not defending it by any means, it was just funny to see the same words that you said at the top here under the photo of the concoction.

  16. I suspect that the marshmallow mentioned in our number three patent medicine here, comes from the marshmallow plant but not the marshmallow we commonly associated with that word! Personally, I grow marshmallow, the plant, in my yard. This of course has nothing to do with the effectiveness of said remedy but I can imagine that most people would imagine marshmallows The Fluffy confection in your narration as opposed to marshmallow the herb! Just a be more thorough critique.

  17. Why am I reminded of the opening part of the Danny Kaye movie "The Inspector General" with the great Walter Slezak as the head of a traveling medicne show taking about "Yakof's Golden Elixir!..I am a humble man, and do not make extravigant claims…if someone is dead my medicine is unlikely to help…BUT, if only a SPARK of life remains, Yakof's Golden Elixir will fan it into a ROARING flame of health!!!!"… not so different from TV ads today…….

  18. Simon, I love all your videos but the more I watch the more it sounds like you harbor a dislike towards the U.S.A. Am I off the mark or is there some… disdain between you and us?

  19. Cleaned out a former pharmacy and found a bunch of old labels for “Houstonia Liniment.” I kept one and had it framed! It was bit of local history from the early 1900s for South Charleston, Ohio. Later found an old, empty box from it as well. Probably the closest I’ll get to time travel. 🙂

  20. A very common error: 666 is NOT connected to the devil, the Bible says it to be a number of a man, and the wise should know it! Check in Revelation 13:18 and be amazed.

  21. By 3:03 we can read on lable that Zoa-Phora does not contain alcohol but Simon says, that it had enough alcohol to qualify as liquor. Did you use the wrong label, maybe a later version or how come?

  22. Baby Percy Syrup looks like it might have been relatively safe compared with opiate-containing baby syrups. If it were really just 5% alcohol, folks were giving their babes the equivalent of 1 tsp of beer. But who knows if it were manufactured in a clean or consistent way?

  23. Simon, you get a lot of flak for your pronunciation but I want to thank you for getting Racine right. 95 % of non residents get it wrong (they say RAY-seen in stead of Ruh-seen)

  24. The internet has resurrected the snake oil industry with a whole new range of “goop.”
    And some “olde tyme” remedies just won’t die, like homeopathy.
    Because there really is a sucker born every minute.
    And because you’d rather believe a blond with big pecs or boobs who couldn’t get through the alphabet than a nerd who went to school for 10 years.

  25. I remember one patent medicine quack advertise that his medication could cure whatever ails you, make you feel better if you feel bad, and if you are neither sick nor feeling bad, well, this medication will make you feel even better!

  26. What I don't understand is if an adult is prescribed an opiate by a doctor and ends up having to take it for the rest of their lives to have quality of life then how is that different than taking antidepressants or antipsychotics or insulin or a million other medicines? It seems like the problems occur when they're made to stop, and still need to take it, then use illicit fentanyl laced heroin and od. sorry had to rant!

  27. And we are still gullible and susceptible to new produces and stupid/false marketing, from medicine to tech. Nothing changed for the last 150-200 years (and counting).

  28. Better Health Best Me Medicine By Pretty Princess PP Will help you become healthier, become the best you can be for just $56.78 cents + $9 for shipping. Recipe includes sugar, syrup, honey, white men cum, etc.

  29. Bee venom, which you are injected with when you GET bee sting. It is an anti-inflammatory. And the same chemical compound as Rattle Snake venom

  30. For everyone commenting on the pronunciation of the word "salve", like everything else, it depends on where you live and how you learned it. I live in Wisconsin ( just south of Racine, as mentioned in the video), and I pronounce 'salve' with the 'L'.

  31. What is really scary about this, is that if it were not for government intervention people would still be buying and using these products, and swearing by them. In fact, there are plenty of legally manufactured "cures" that are in existence today that are every bit as fake as all of these are. Just that they don't contain anything unhealthy/life-threatening for human consumption.

    Like those vitamins you see at pretty much any drug/grocery store and advertised on television. Tons of people swear by them, but they are all fake.

  32. Do you suffer from aches, pains, nosebleeds, hair loss, muscle spasms, sore feet, hangnails, and cancer? Then you need to binge watch TopTenz! Only TooTenz can relieve your ailments once and for all. So subscribe today and start on the path to wellness. (Note: not clinically proven to relieve anything, except perhaps boredom. But feel free to binge watch TopTenz until you get better or keel over and die, whichever comes first.)

  33. I don'y have a sample, but one summer of roaming I saw a faded sign painted on the side of a barn that read "Doctor Pierce's Pleasant Pellets for Weak Women."
    Occasionally felt the need for them, and wish they were still on the market ;>)

  34. While some of the city's residents might need to be well-tazed, the pronunciation of the name of their town (and county) sounds like the Tasmanian Devil's response to a query about his health: Taz Well!

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