Legal controls on patent medicines are a relatively recent development. Our ancestors relied on exorbitant advertised claims and theatrical presentations for advice on what to take for medical problems. Looking at the ads they read, it is a wonder that any of them survived long enough to have children.
Until the late 19th century, medicine men traveled from town to town selling their wares. Modern medicine had not yet evolved. Barbers performed surgery and itinerant dentists pulled teeth and dispensed "wonder drugs" that were similar to the opium- and quinine-laden medicine that doctors dispensed.
"Quack, Quack, Quack" is a new exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This exhibit features the prints, posters and pamphlets that guaranteed everything from "animal magnetism" to cures for "the indiscretions of youth."
It might be hard to understand how anyone would believe some of the claims, such as a magnetic wafer that cures sterility. Other ads offered diet pills and no-effort exercise contraptions.
Come to think of it, that sounds like the spam mail of 2005! Maybe things haven't changed after all.
The exhibit's 75 works trace quackery from about 1600 to 1930 and include well-known artists including Maxfield Parrish, William Hogarth and Jacques Callot. You can read more about the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Quack, Quack, Quack: The Sellers of Nostrums in Prints, Posters, Ephemera & Books at http://www.philamuseum.org/exhibitions/exhibits/quack.shtml.
Another interesting web site can be found at the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices Online at http://www.mtn.org/quack/welcome.htm.