Medicine for Weak Women — Hokum Era

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Medicine for Weak Women — Hokum Era

In the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, alleged cures for “female weakness” were among the nostrums marketed by quacks. Apparently these were sold with the realization that women represented a lucrative special market. Among the most successful of such marketers was a Buffalo physician who became known as “The Prince of Quacks

 

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Photo by Glenda Mahoney

 

The popular female nostrums included “Wine of Cardui”—a preparation sold as the “Woman’s Tonic”—that contained 20 percent alcohol. Other, similarly constituted nostrums were “Gerstle’s Female Panacea” (20 percent alcohol) and “Andrews’ Wine of Life Root or Female Regulator” (14 percent).

As well, the La Franco Medical Company of Philadelphia sold “Female Pills No. 2”; Margaret M. Livingston, MD, of Chicago offered a variety of products, including “Dr. Livingston’s Medicinal Tampons”; and the Phen-ix Chemical Company sold “Stargrass Compound—Nature’s tonic for women,” among other products. The American Medical Association regarded all of these as quackery (Cramp 1921, II: 160–182).

One of the most famous merchants of quack medicine for women was Lydia E. Pinkham (1819–1893) who marketed “Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound.” Among its outrageous claims was that it was “A Sure Cure” for “Falling of the Womb” (Prolapsus uteri) and, indeed, “All Female Weaknesses,” including irregular menstruation and even labor pains. In fact the product contained only a minor amount of vegetable extracts in water but was 18 percent alcohol (Cramp 1921, II: 160–163)

 

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The man who became one of the greatest sellers of nostrums in America was Buffalo’s Ray Vaughn Pierce (1840–1914).

Pierce parlayed an off-beat medical degree into a quackery empire that included an Invalids’ Hotel. His World’s Dispensary Medical Association endlessly dispensed Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery and a host of other elixirs, copies of his medical tome (The People’s Common Sense Medical Adviser [1888]), and a profusion of advertising giveaways. (See the Nickell Collection of Dr. R.V. Pierce Medical Artifacts, part of the New York state digital repository initiative, posted by CFI Libraries Director Tim Binga.1)

Of course, Pierce had something special for women—or rather “Weak Women.” Now, he was not saying women were weak per se, indeed enlisting Anna “Annie” Edson Taylor, the first daredevil to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, for some ads.2 Rather, when strong women became weak through illnesses suffered by women, the good doctor had just the remedy—one second only to his tonic, Golden Medical Discovery, as a cure-all.

 

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Dr. Pierce offered women a product that—like his other concoctions—was in keeping with the “eclectic” school of medicine from which he graduated. This advocated replacing “noxious medicines” with “more effective agents, derived exclusively from the vegetable kingdom” (Pierce 1888, 294–295)—in a word, botanicals (drugs from herbs, bark, etc.). He called his medicine for females “Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription.”

In his book, Pierce (1888, 342, 346, 355) described his preparation as “a tonic nervine” that both “quiets nervous irritation” and “strengthens the enfeebled nervous system, restoring it to healthful vigor.” Moreover, “In all diseases involving the female reproductive organs, with which there is usually associated an irritable condition of the nervous system, it is unsurpassed as a remedy.” In addition, it was “a uterine and general tonic of great excellence,” as well as “an efficient remedy in cases requiring a medicine to regulate the menstrual function.” Finally, Pierce claimed expansively, “In all cases of debility, the Favorite Prescription tranquilizes the nerves, tones up the organs and increases their vigor, and strengthens the system.”

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The label of a bottle in my collection reads in full: “Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription For the Relief of The Many Weaknesses and Complaints Peculiar to Females, Manufactured at the Chemical Laboratory of World’s Dispensary Medical Association, Buffalo, N.Y. Contains 81/2 Ozs. Trade-Mark Registered in U.S. Pat. Office, Dec. 11th, 1908. Mdse. 59.” No ingredients are listed. (See Figure 1.)

 

Image result for Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription

However, a notebook in possession of Dr. Pierce’s grandson names the ingredients of some Pierce products, including Favorite Prescription for which it lists berberis, valerian, blue cohosh, black cohosh, and viburnum (Hirsch 2004, 15). These are still found in herbal guides, recommended for some of the same conditions that Dr. Pierce named. For example, viburnum (black haw root) is reportedly an antispasmodic, used for “threatened miscarriage,” while valerian root is found in some over-the-counter sleep aids, and black cohosh is a relaxant said to relieve menstrual cramps (Balch 2002, 138–139; Naturopathic 1995, 91, 92, 124). Whatever value the ingredients might have if properly prescribed, does not argue for the wisdom of dumping them together and urging them on persons whom the physician has not seen, who may in fact be harmed by the product.

Pierce was accused of worse. Collier’scalled him a “quack,” and Ladies Home Journal went even farther—too far as it turned out. The Journal article, penned by its celebrated editor Edward Bok, alleged that Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription contained not only alcohol but also opium and digitalis. In fact it contained none of these, as laboratory tests soon showed. The Journal issued a retraction and apologized. However, Dr. Pierce felt entitled to more and, in agreement, a court awarded him $16,000 in a libel judgment. Pierce also sued Collier’s, but—after examining the varied definitions of the word quack—the court rejected Pierce’s claim (Hirsch 2004, 14).

Pierce’s Legacy

In his heyday, Dr. R.V. Pierce was, notes one historical writer, “Buffalo’s most famous doctor,” one “whose name and bearded countenance were familiar to people all over the world” (Hirsch 2004, 10). Today, however, the same writer observes of Pierce: “He’s disappeared into the mist. Nobody’s really ever heard of him” (Hirsch 2009).

commercial sign: Dr. Pierce's Favorite Prescription - For Weak Women

 

Of course, historians, skeptics, and collectors, among others, learn about Dr. Pierce, and his legacy remains sizeable. In collecting Dr. Pierce items, I am fortunate to live in the area where he flourished, where such artifacts may be especially findable. Looking just at Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription, I have been able to purchase several specific collectibles as I’ve made my way to antique shops and centers, mostly within a one-hundred-mile radius (again, see Figure 1). Also, dealers who know of my interest sometimes inform me of a newly discovered rare item. For example, Peter Jablonski, president of the Greater Buffalo Bottle Collectors Association (GBBCA—of which I am a member), obtained for me the Pierce sign—addressed to “Weak Women”—shown in Figure 2.

While returning from an investigation in LeRoy, New York (Nickell 2012), along Route 5, I passed an old barn with faint advertising lettering. I made a U-turn and parked at the site, where I took photographs (see Figure 3) of what clearly reads, “FAVORITE PRESCRIPTION.” Given the location and the fact that the words were a trademark of Dr. Pierce, it is clear that this was one of several Pierce barn signs across the United States (“Looking” 2012), and now—so far as we can yet determine—the only remaining one known in New York state.

I had wondered why the “DR. PIERCE’S” portion was no longer legible. On a return visit, when my wife Diana used her GPS to obtain location coordinates,3 I met the property owner. He told me that a shed had once been built onto the end of the barn, where the legible lettering now is, which obviously protected it from the many years of weathering that the other portion was subjected to.

Such discoveries give hope that other “time capsules” will yield their treasures, giving us insights into medical science’s past that can help us plot a more informed future course

From

Dr. Pierce: Medicine for ‘Weak Women’

 

Come and visit the Lanark County Genealogical Society Facebook page– what’s there? Cool old photos–and lots of things interesting to read. Also check out The Tales of Carleton Place and The Tales of Almonte

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About lindaseccaspina

Linda Knight Seccaspina was born in Cowansville, Quebec about the same time as the wheel was invented and the first time she realized she could tell a tale was when she got caught passing her smutty stories around in Grade 7 at CHS by Mrs. Blinn. When Derek "Wheels" Wheeler from Degrassi Jr. High died in 2010, Linda wrote her own obituary. Some people said she should think about a career in writing obituaries. Before she laid her fingers to a keyboard, Linda owned the eclectic store Flash Cadilac and Savannah Devilles in Ottawa from 1976-1996. After writing for years about things that she cared about or pissed her off she finally found her calling. Is it sex drugs and rock n' roll you might ask? No, it is history. Seeing that her very first boyfriend in Grade 5 (who she won a Twist contest with in the 60s) is the head of the Brome Misissiquoi Historical Society and also specializes in local history back in Quebec, she finds that quite funny. She writes every single day and is also a columnist for Hometown News and Screamin's Mamas. She is a volunteer for the Carleton Place and Beckwith Heritage Museum, an admin for the Lanark County Genealogical Society Facebook page, and a local guest speaker. She has been now labelled an historian by the locals which in her mind is wrong. You see she will never be like the iconic local Lanark County historian Howard Morton Brown, nor like famed local writer Mary Cook. She proudly calls herself The National Enquirer Historical writer of Lanark County, and that she can live with. Linda has been called the most stubborn woman in Lanark County, and has requested her ashes to be distributed in any Casino parking lot as close to any Wheel of Fortune machine as you can get. But since she wrote her obituary, most people assume she's already dead. Linda has published six books, "Menopausal Woman From the Corn," "Cowansville High Misremembered," "Naked Yoga, Twinkies and Celebrities," "Cancer Calls Collect," "The Tilted Kilt-Vintage Whispers of Carleton Place," and "Flashbacks of Little Miss Flash Cadilac." All are available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle. Linda's books are for sale on Amazon or at Wisteria · 62 Bridge Street · Carleton Place, Ottawa, Canada, and at the Carleton Place and Beckwith Heritage Museum · 267 Edmund Street · Carleton Place, Ottawa, Canada--Appleton Museum-Mississippi Textile Mill and Mill Street Books and Heritage House Museum and The Artists Loft in Smith Falls.

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