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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Traveling Medicine Shows

Traveling medicine shows that peddled miracle cures were common in 19th century America, especially in the western states. Part entertainment and part quackery, self-described doctors rolled into rural towns and villages—sometimes as a lone horse rider but far more often with a troupe, in a brightly-colored wagon—always with attention-grabbing clamor from brass cymbals, trumpets, or other musical instruments.

The prime objective was the promotion and sale of bottled, so-called miracle elixirs (sometimes referred to as snake oils) which, they claimed, had the ability to cure disease, smooth wrinkles, remove stains, prolong life or cure any number of common ailments. Most carried their own “patent medicine,” which was mostly unpatented, yet sounded official to the gullible.

First, the “doctor” drew a crowd with a hyped-up monologue. Then, to lull the wary and make the marks more susceptible, he and his accomplices presented a rather lavish entertainment that might include a freak show, a flea circus, musical acts, magic tricks, and storytelling. The entertainers—such as dancers, acrobats, magicians and ventriloquists—kept the audience engaged until it came time to deliver the sales pitch. Shows played either outdoors from a wagon or platform, or indoors in a theatre or opera hall. Admission was usually free or nominal. The show would continue to run as many days as possible, sometimes several weeks; then move on to the next town.

Over the course of the 19th century, these traveling medicine sales/entertainment shows became more polished, as the burgeoning patent medicine industry grew. At least 1,500 patent medicines were recorded by 1858, affording enterprising drifters a specific product to sell, but these "medicines" seldom treated the specific symptoms of an illness. Alcohol, opium and cocaine were typical ingredients, all of which produced a pleasurable effect, and their addictive qualities provided an increasing need to keep buying them—while their touted “medicinal benefits” provided a sufficient excuse.

So as not to waste selling opportunities during the off-travel seasons, entrepreneurs placed full-page, multi-paragraph newspaper ads in the larger towns, to laud the astounding properties of their product. The one pictured here is for Sands’ Sarsaparilla which—in addition to “purifying the blood”—proclaimed the following:

Cancerous ulcer cured!

Live complaints cured!

Scrofulous affection of the eyes, cured!

This particular Sands’ Sarsaparilla advertisement appeared in San Francisco’s Weekly Alta California on November 15, 1849.

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