Snake Oil

"Step right up. This here tonic will magically make all your aches and pains go away. One sip and you'll be dancing a jig with your sweetheart." The traveling medicine show is an icon of the American West. In the 19th century physicians were scarce in the wilds of the open lands and mountains of the Western United States. Uneducated people relied on doctors who often had little more education than the patients they treated. Medicinal treatments relied on the theory of balancing the four bodily humors: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood. Relying on the lack of education was the foundation for the traveling salesman who hawked the magical "cure-all" medicines.

Although some early pharmaceutical companies no doubt account for the larger traveling medicine shows Hawkers sold Cure All Elixirsto advertise and sell their products; the smaller shows often had elixirs that were self-concocted. Most of the magical tonics contained mostly alcohol with opium or cocaine added and an assortment of other ingredients. The drugs ensured a quick feeling of wellness for customers buying the elixir for the first time, and provided the seller with possible customers who became addicted to the medicine. In essence, were these the first drug dealers? A good comparison, but the sellers probably had little knowledge or understanding of the addictive nature of the products they sold.

Other elixirs were simply alcohol with numerous herbs added or even water with different herbs added. Hawkers claimed the elixir would cure anything, coughs, cramps, pneumonia, joint pains, bruises, cuts, corns, burns, rickets, sore throats, warts, and any other ailment that came to mind.

Most of the smaller medicine shows involved two to five people and there was usually some sort of entertainment as a set up to selling the "cure-all" remedies. The show usually included testimonials and stunts to "prove" the effectiveness of the product as well as acts such as juggling, magic, singers, and storytellers. Admission was free and performers shared in the profits from the sale of the elixirs. Over time, people began to realize these products did not always do what they claimed and started to call the elixirs sold in this manner "snake oil." Those hawkers who mixed and sold their own elixirs usually traveled in a one horse wagon that advertised the product on its sides. They usually came into town and took advantage of any gathering of townspeople to sell their tonics.

Two of the more well known traveling medicine shows in the late 1800s was the Kickapoo Medicine Company form New Haven, Connecticut and the Oregon Indian Medicine Company from Corry, Pennsylvania. Their products were patented and they traveled with a large number of performers, mostly Native Americans. The Kickapoo Company sold several products and the cough syrup was later discovered to consist of Jamaican rum and molasses from New Orleans. The main product of the Oregon Indian Company, purported to be "all curing" and made from special Indian herbs, proved to be a mixture of alcohol, baking soda, aloes and sugar with a bit of coloring added.

The larger, company backed medicine shows usually promoted their arrival intoMedicine Show of the Old West a town a few weeks in advance. In larger towns, they even held parades. When traveling to smaller towns, the show's performers set up camps on the outskirts of the towns and "practiced" outside their tents, thus inviting the curious to pay to see the actual show. Each show had the hawker, often called professor or doctor, who sold the magical elixir to cure all ills. These shows were considered by many to be the forerunners of the Buffalo Bill Cody Wild West Shows and the Barnum and Bailey Circus.

Today there are numerous acts that incorporate some version of the old west medicine show. Many of these acts travel the country playing in small cafes and bars to the thrill of those who are entertained by the images of a well dressed hawker claiming he has the answer to all their aches and pains. "Step right up, it'll cure headaches, toothaches, joint pain and get rid of those unsightly bumps and bruises." Doesn't this sound like the late night infomercial? "It slices, it dices…."

The copyright of the article "The Medicine Show of America's Old West" is owned by Cheryl Weldon. Permission to republish "The Medicine Show of America's Old West" in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.