The A to Z Challenge – M for Medicine Shows & Mountebanks

The A to Z Challenge is on! Hello and welcome to my Main blog. My name is Rose Anderson and I’m a romance novelist. Join me and more than 2279 bloggers and authors as we blog the alphabet throughout the month of April. My daily posts will be mostly history with some science topics here and there. I’ve chosen subjects that tickle my fancy, I hope you will find them interesting too.

Keep the topic rolling! If you have comments or questions, add them at the end of the post. I may not know the answer off the top of my head but I love research and would enjoy discussing my topics further. Comments can be made just below my bio in the tag section.

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Today’s Calliope’s Writing Tablet post is brought to you by the letter M ~
M for Medicine Shows and Mountebanks

I got into a conversation with my husband and daughter the other day. They both watched a recent release of the series Mad Men. I’ve never watched the show, but it’s my understanding it’s about the world of advertising in the middle of the last century. Apparently psychology played a large role in getting people to buy products after the war.  We talked about advertising on the scale it is today. I think advertising always contained hype and a bit of fact-bending.  As per the habit of the writer’s mind, I wandered with the topic and ended up on a friend of mine.  He historically portrays a composite character from an old-time traveling medicine show who “sells” tonics to a a gullible crowd. And so I discarded the topic I’d chosen for M and started anew.

To examine American Traveling Medicine Shows one needs to begin with the mountebanks of Europe. In case you don’t know, a mountebank is a purveyor of quack medicines. In other words a charlatan or a fraud. Mountebanks came into their own in the Middle Ages where they peddled tokens to protect one from the recurring runs of plagues and devils — the usual stuff. During the Renaissance the mountebanks dazzled their crowds with street theater that often include feats of magic, amazing skills and illusions, music, or staged miracles. The idea was to draw them in, then sell to them!

By the 1700’s, the mountebanks were pitching their spiel and selling worthless products to a budding nation. The quackery got so bad in North America that the colonies tried to put an end to them early on. Several colonies successfully passed Acts through their local governing bodies regulating these home made medicines, while other colonies passed Acts for outright suppression of mountebanks.

But in much the same way today’s influence with subliminal sexual gratification, the promises the mountebanks made on behalf of their products were siren’s calls to the gullible or afflicted, and consumers flocked like sheep to buy them.

There was more at play than promises.

I’ll begin with the shills — those who came into town ahead of the mountebanks and pretended they were in some sorry condition. To gull the crowd, they’d buy the magical elixirs, drink them down on the spot, toss down their crutches and be miraculously “cured”. You can bet a special bottle was set aside just for them. The traveling medicine shows curried legitimacy with costumed characters pretending to belong to the mysterious cultures of the Orient.  The Hindu snake handlers, medicineshowposter-275Egyptian belly dancers, sheiks, fakirs and more brought a worldliness to rural America. If it was good enough for the Sheik’s back ache, then it was good enough for old Tom the barber. That extra marketing charisma was an irresistible carrot dangling on a stick.

Home remedies at the time often followed the ancient belief in the doctrine of signatures . That is, if a leaf is shaped like a liver then it must treat the liver. Snakes, for example, slithered effortlessly on their healthy spine, therefore snake oil must be good for rheumatism. Often real medicines and tinctures tasted bitter so medicine show tonics had bitter ingredients added to lend a bit of authenticity. Cocaine and opium were common additives, as were turpentine, creosote, stump water, and bitters. Mostly, they contained alcohol. In some states were Blue Laws were on the books, you couldn’t buy spirits on the weekends, but you could buy that tonic that kicked like a mule.

Inventing problems the tonics and elixirs are alleged to solve.

In their mesmerizing sales pitches, some pretty posteroutrageous promises were made. Eliminating baldness and being irresistible to the fairer sex were the benign claims. Curing tuberculosis, diphtheria, venereal diseases, infant colic and digestive problems, female complaints of all sorts, and even as a cure for cancer, were all found in this one bottle and it only cost you a few pennies… and a little blind faith. Bottles were purchased and business was good. Before you knew it the medicine show had gone. Speed was important lest someone become ill or drunk, as they often did. Children, the elderly, and the infirm were dosed. Often with tragic consequences.

On the flip side, some common old-timey patent medicines actually became household products with a genuine following for their efficacy. I remember some oldies were still on the drug store shelves when I was a kid. We know them today as Fletcher’s Castoria, Ex-Lax, Absorbine Jr., Doan’s Pills, Geritol, Bromo-Seltzer, Carter’s Little Pills, Vick’s VapoRub, Smith Brothers Throat Drops, Philips’ Milk of Magnesia, and who doesn’t know Bayer Aspirin and Anacin?

After centuries of charlatanism, the Pure Food and Drug Act was enacted in 1906 requiring manufacturers to list their ingredients on labels and restrict misleading advertising claims. In 1938, safety testing came into being. In 1962, effectiveness testing was required. And so, the snake oil and the snake oil salesman left the scene. But if you look closely, you’ll see they’re still out there making up the ads and commercials that bombard our lives each day.


Here’s a good friend of mine playing his alter ego — a colonial mountebank.
Fun to Note: Towards the end he makes music with two sets of bones. He taught me to play. I’m nowhere near that good. 🙂

Here’s a later example of the medicine show quack. He does a very good job as a slick talker. Imagine him with his cart in 1870’s rural Iowa or Oklahoma and the purses emptying to buy his elixirs.

More From the Oklahoma Historical Society

Fast Fact: In their book Freakonomics, authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner point their finger at Listerine as the source of today’s shame-based selling. I say shame-based because we once lived in a haze of child-like innocence unaware of the abject offensiveness of split-ends, graying hair, sweaty underarms, stained teeth, dandruff, ring around the collar, bad breath and more. Fortunately, the makers of Listerine clued us in at the turn of the last century. And it grew more outrageous as time went on. Even Lysol was sold as a douche. Seriously.

Tomorrow ~ letter N


Authors_in_Bloom-300x250Last Week for wild foods recipes on my satellite blog!

The Authors in Bloom event highlights those things authors do outside the fiction. We garden, we cook, we craft etc. One of the more unusual things my husband and I have done was lead wild foods programs for Chicago’s Field Museum. For this event I’ll be sharing my recipes. Do stop by. You may have delicious ingredients waiting in your backyard!


4 Us iconSee what’s happening on the RB4U blog today

Our April contest is on. We’ll have 3 winners and a lot of prizes to split among them.


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About ~RoseAnderson

Rose Anderson is an award-winning author and dilettante who loves great conversation and delights in discovering interesting things to weave into stories. Rose also writes under the pen name Madeline Archer.
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10 Responses to The A to Z Challenge – M for Medicine Shows & Mountebanks

  1. melissakeir says:

    These men are a staple of the old Bonanza show. I think one of them must come through about every week. I worry about the people who thought that the medicines helped.

  2. drdebra says:

    Great blog. You gave me an idea to add to a future story!

  3. djtsmith says:

    It was amazing what they’d come up with and what people would believe… a little like the Internet.
    Donna Smith
    The A-to-Z Challenge
    Mainely Write

  4. rosgemmell says:

    Great post, Rose – I used to love old films depicting these mountebanks and I’ve read a few medieval stories with such quacks and dodgy ‘cures’.

  5. Judy baker says:

    Your post brought back memories of the old TV westerns that always has the traveling medicine man. I write westerns, but have never had a medicine man in my story – in have to make note. Thanks

  6. skmarshall2014 says:

    The music the medicine man made with the bones was really good. Excellent post, Rose.

  7. Ray G says:

    Another excellent educational blog.

    When I was in Navy Pharmacy Tech School rectified turpentine was still a recognized expectorant. It sort of went away because it was linked to pneumonia caused by petroleum. As late as 1978 when I was working part time in a hospital pharmacy there was a tonic on the shelves called Iron Quinine and Strychnine,

    What bothers me is the number of powerful drugs that once required a prescription are now sold over the counter. Most people don’t have the knowledge to take them the way they are meant to be taken.

    Today’s Medicine Shows are run by the pharmaceutical companies. Just listen when you see the drug ads on TV and then actually listen closely when the ad glosses over serious side effects. When death is mentioned as a side effect it is given short shrift

    • Thanks, Ray. How right you are. The side effects just aren’t worth it. Many years ago when chemotherapy drugs were coming on the scene for rheumatoid arthritis treatment, I was seeing a top research rheumatologist in the Midwest. I asked him about these drugs because I was in a particularly bad flare-up. He cautioned me to never take them even if the advertising spin made them sound like a miracle. His opinion was aspirin, high doses if necessary, combined with a disease-inhibitor like quinine were my best defense. Before that doctor I was in and out of hospitals all through my teens. Today doctors are surprised at how well my joints are holding up considering I’ve had a 41 year run with the disease. I haven’t been on quinine for close to 30 years. Nasty bitter stuff, but it works.

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