Medicine in 1860s Victoria

Patent Medicines

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Patent medicines were what today we call "over-the-counter" or "brand name" medicines. There were many of them available to the nineteenth century person. Several were advertised in Victoria's newspapers of the 1860s and available at local drug stores.

These ads all had one thing in common: they promised that the purchaser of the medicine would be immediately cured of a vast array of ailments. There were no consumer protection laws to restrain the advertiser's enthusiasm, no testing laboratories to confirm or refute the claims, and no standards committees to ensure quality. While many of the concoctions may not have been harmful, it is highly improbable that they could have had the affects their manufacturers claimed they had.


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July 21, 1862 Click for larger image Click for reference data
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Click for reference data Click for larger image July 21, 1862

Most patent medicines were derived from plants, many from herbs that had long been in use. There were several standard "dispensatory" books that described the properties and method of preparation of these plant medicines. Wm. H. Cook says of yellow-dock:

"The greater portion of its power is expended upon the skin; but the gall-ducts, small intestines, and kidneys, feel its impressions to a fair extent. Though not cathartic, it is fairly laxative; and exerts a desirable tonic and diluent influence upon the entire hepatic and alvine structures..." Click for reference data

Of sarsaparilla, Cook says:

"It is relaxant and gently stimulant; mild and moderately slow in action; and expending its properties chiefly upon the skin and kidneys, and moderately upon the mucous structures of the lungs and uterus. enjoys a just repute as an alterant. ... It is principally used in mild secondary syphilis, and in cutaneous affections connected with irritability. It may be used in simple cases of leucorrhea ..." Click for reference data


Click for reference data Click for larger image September 19, 1866

Bitters were a class of tonic medicines recommended for a variety of illnesses, from upset stomach to influenza, malaria and dysentery. The ingredients that made them bitter included quinine, nux vomica and cocaine. Bitters may actually have been somewhat effective; quinine is still used as a treatment for malaria. However, the claims often made that these medicines contained nothing harmful is clearly untrue: nux vomica contains high levels of strychnine, even small quantities of which can be deadly. Bitters were also used to treat "bilious fever", a generic term for several diseases thought to be caused by an excess of "yellow bile", one of the four humors. Too much yellow bile was said to make one "bilious" (from "bile") or "choleric"; thus the names of diseases such as cholera and cholic.

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January 2, 1864 Click for larger image Click for reference data

The complaints of the makers of "S.T-1860-X" that their product is being imitated and counterfeited is a common one in these ads. They urge the buyer to carefully check the label to ensure they are getting the genuine product and not some cheap imitation. Manufacturers often put the signature of the "doctor" who supposedly created the medicine on the label or cork of the bottle to mark their brand as the real thing.


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