Patent medicines originated in 16th century England. These medicines were ready-made remedies and could be purchased to treat many conditions. Originally,the term referred to medicines that actually were patented. To receive a patent, however, the maker had to reveal all ingredients that went into the medicine. Inventors were often reluctant to reveal a formula and would just register the name of the medicine. In this way they could keep their ingredients secret while retaining exclusive use of a name. In time, all ready-made medicines whether they were patented or not became known as patent medicines.
The term patent medicine has a negative meaning today because of the amount of quackery tied to patent medicines in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. Some patent medicines actually did contain effective substances and worked as promised. Quinine, digitalis, ipecac, and other substances have genuinemedical uses, and they were found in several patent medicines of the era. However, because patent medicine makers were not required to disclose ingredients, consumers bought medicines on faith. Unethical manufacturers took advantage of that faith. Some patent medicine makers heavily advertised cure-alls that contained nothing more than water, flavoring, and coloring. Other patent medicines supposedly contained exotic ingredients, such as snake oil, which inferred special curative powers. The patent medicines seemed to work because many conditions for which they were advertised simply went away by themselves.If a person were to take a patent medicine, he or she would naturally attribute a return to health to the medicine. Through this ploy, patent medicine makers had many people willing to write testimonials about the effectiveness ofthe medicine. These testimonials served as the best kind of advertising. In most cases, even if patent medicines didn't help, they didn't cause any harm either. However, some patent medicines were dangerous. Tonics for general health, bitters for stomach complaints, and medicines for "female weakness" oftencontained high percentages of alcohol. Patent medicines meant to soothe teething babies contained morphine. Cures for colds and congestion contained heroin or cocaine. Used indiscriminately, these medicines could be addictive, sickening, or even deadly.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the tide began to turn against patent medicines. The public had been defrauded too often and it was angry. In 1906,the United States Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act. This law required manufacturers to list the amounts of alcohol, opium, cocaine and other substances in their medicines if they were present. It did not prohibit these substances from being sold over the counter, however. Still, many patent medicines were forced off the shelf by this law and others had to change their content or advertising. There were high hopes that this law would mean the end ofineffective and dangerous patent medicines. However, the law had loopholes,and there was incomplete knowledge about some substances. One such substancewas radium, a highly radioactive material. For a short time after the discovery of radioactivity, both the medical community and the public believed thatit had special curative powers. Patent medicine makers picked up on this belief and produced medicines to meet the public demand. Radium could be taken byinjection, tablet, suppository, or inhalation, and it was advertised as a cure for baldness, impotence, aging, rheumatism, and a variety of other ills. Radioactive patent medicines were sold into the early 1930s, demonstrating that the Pure Food and Drug Act and other laws passed in 1912 and 1914 weren't stringent enough. Progressively stricter regulation followed in the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (1938), the Durham-Humphrey Act (1951), and the Kefauver-Harris Amendment (1962). These laws imposed strict controls on non-prescription medicines, but have not completely eliminated the production and sale of patent medicines.