Step right up, friends, and prepare yourselves for the opportunity of a lifetime. Today we are offering to you an amazing cure-all, stolen from the secret masters of ancient Tibet, at great bodily risk to our person. Bottled within this marvelous elixir are mystical ingredients that are guaranteed to cure your gout, halt your aches, prevent consumption, put a spring in your step, and make you irresistible to the ladies. You have absolutely nothing to fear, except perhaps an empty space in your wallet and thirty percent chance of permanent blindness.
Medicine shows were a common fixture of American life in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. They roamed from town to town in search of people to swindle, often using a plant in the audience that the snake-oil salesman could call upon during the pitch. The person would hobble up, take a swig of the awe-inspiring remedy, and then toss away their crutches and perform a merry jig. After such incontrovertible proof, it’s no wonder the townsfolk swarmed forward with money in hand and demanded a chance to purchase the amazing medicine.
So what were the rubes actually ingesting? In some cases it was common tap water with opium extract added for ‘miraculous effects’, which helps explain the odd sensations people would sometimes experience when imbibing the drink. Other patent medicines were a strange concoction of red onions, peppers, and dried apricot pits. The secret masters apparently liked to peruse the produce section of your local supermarket. Oddly enough, the most controversial element to be used was alcohol, but that was mostly due to ongoing Prohibition efforts at the time.
Some people might be surprised to learn that patent medicine still exists to this day, as do the shows which advertise it. If you’d like to see one, all you have to do is flip your television on Sunday morning and find the guy selling ‘Natural Male Enhancement’ or ‘Medical secrets THEY don’t want you to know about.’ Rest assured, there are no chemicals whatsoever in the revolutionary products they are promoting.