Tim Willoughby: A well-named patent medicine cures whatever ails you
Legends & Legacies
A pharmaceutical breakthrough of 1899 led to real pain relief and the replacement of phony patent medicines. Workers at Bayer laboratories experimented with a different formula to compound pain medicine. They came up with modern aspirin, still trademarked by Bayer. But it took a while for Aspen’s residents, adherents to fancy-named patent medicine, to discern the benefit.
Two pharmacies vied for Aspen’s patrons during the mining era, Aspen Pharmacy and Al Lamb’s. They stood a few buildings apart on Hyman Avenue. Their dueling ads in the daily newspaper pushed brand-name medicines, many of which claimed relief from all kinds of pain.
Al Lamb’s featured Ballard products. Ballard had founded the Ballard Snow Liniment Co. in 1882 and along with the liniment offered Campho-Phenique and Swain’s Panacea. One testimonial addressed “Fortunate Bicycle Riders” and said the liniment “cures where others only relieve, pain and inflammation simply can’t stay where it is applied.” The ads also claimed that “science has learned what pain is.” Those scientists must have worked hard because the liniment allegedly relieved the pain of frostbite, a well-known discomfort in Aspen. Lamb also promoted Ballard’s Horehound Syrup to stop the pain of coughing.
Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup banished children’s teething pain. And at the other end of the body, WoWitt’s Witch Hazel Salve claimed to immediately stop pain from piles. Brewed from the witch hazel shrub, the well-known remedy harkened back to the Puritans, who co-opted it from Native Americans.
The popularity of patent medicines thrived on plausible explanations of how they worked and their low cost. Those with back pain, for instance, believed their pain originated in the liver. Manufacturers assured them that Herbine, “a harmless vegetable remedy,” would reduce pain because it would help the liver function better. Most remedies ranged from 50 cents to a dollar a bottle, in today’s dollars.
Aspen Pharmacy asserted “all pain banished by Dr. Miles’ Pain Pills.” If that did not work and you had “a crick in the back, a pain under the shoulder blades,” you could try Ayer’s Pills. Acker’s Blood Elixir promised to cure syphilitic poisons. It claimed to reduce dull headache pain or pain in “various parts of the body,” and address evidence of impure blood.
More competitive products maintained that they would ease multiple symptoms. Dr. King’s New Discovery — a great name for a product — could “cure your grip,” sooth a sore throat and simultaneously reduce “pain in the back of the head.”
With an abstract name like Bayer Aspirin, the scientific breakthrough won scant attention when placed on the shelf next to exciting-sounding Snow Liniment, Horehound Syrup and King’s New Discovery. Only now, after years of experience, do we fully recognize the pain reliever’s impact.
Given a better branding strategy, even “global climate change” may attract more attention. To hold our interest, this concept needs to sound really hot.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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