From the Stacks 13

My recent foray into the document folder turned up bits of writing from one of my favorite blog events from Aprils past –the A to Z Challenge. They’re pretty interesting, if I do say so myself. I’ll be sharing a few until life quiets down around here. I hope you enjoy. Scroll back to read earlier From The Stacks posts.

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 thinking about a friend of mine. He historically portrays a composite character from an old-time traveling medicine show who “sells” tonics to 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.

M for Magna Mater.

venusWhen I imagine a primordial goddess, the first image that comes to mind is the Venus of Willendorf. Plumped by plenty and filled with fecundity, her wide hips and bountiful breasts declare her fertility and suggest her sustenance. She is the Magna Mater – The Great Mother.

To date, hundreds of similar figures made of stone and bone and clay have been discovered all over the world. Unfortunately, we can only speculate on their exact purpose. The earliest Mothers are faceless. Such anonymity suggests she was beyond personification. Many wear the scars of motherhood on hips, belly, and breasts in acknowledgement of cycles – the cycles of life and birth – an undeniable symbol of the earth itself.

These Great Mothers, reverently called the Venus figures, span both Paleolithic and Neolithic eras. Some, like the Hohle Fels mammoth-ivory Venus, date back more 30,000 years. Older still are the chevrons (zigzags, M, or V patterns) in 40,000-year-old Neanderthal artworks. These too represent woman, and are often depicted beside the wavy lines symbol for water.

As a storyteller, I can see that The Great Mother never really left the scene. Donning the clothes of each region, she simply modernized and became the Goddesses worshiped in ancient civilizations.


Approximate Venus distribution across Europe and the Mediterranean

This youtube video leads to a terrific education site called Education Portal. I recommend taking a look.

~ Other information worth your time ~

Individual images with descriptions

A terrific poster

An interesting conversation with Constance Tippet regarding the Magna Mater and women in society.


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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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1 Response to From the Stacks 13

  1. treknray says:

    Thanks for another interesting blog. Mention of Bromo Seltzer reminds me of a woman coming around with a survey about the blue containers in which the product came. I let her in because at the time I was in Navy Pharmacy Tech school. She asked me if I used Bromo for the blue color. I told her I used it because it worked. She kept probing about the color. I finally told her I would take it if it came in a cardboard box. She went away upset because I wouldn’t answer the question the way she wanted either I liked the blue bottle or I didn’t. I had a good laugh when she left in a huf.

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