Traveling Medicine Shows of Yesteryear

By Bill Schuette

     Today many of our miseries and ailments can be alleviated by the simple act of swallowing a pill, but during the latter part of the 19th century, people were not so fortunate. Medicine was an emerging science which was on the brink of the wonderful discoveries which we take for granted today. Folk medicine was very popular then, and many homespun remedies were applied to the discomforts of the day. In this setting, it was easy for anyone claiming to have a miracle cure to sell his wares to an unsophisticated clientele. There were few laws to protect the public from false claims and harmful ingredients. Traveling medicine shows were a common sight to our great grandparents, who also attended the performances for the entertainment they provided.

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The tent shows usually set up shop at the edge of town and invited all to come and participate. Local residents were coaxed up onto the stage to sing and dance. Winners were chosen by applause from the audience and rewarded with “valuable prizes” which usually consisted of the medicines, salves and ointments that the practitioners sold to the gullible. As P.T. Barnum once observed “There’s a sucker born every minute.” An item in the August, 1891 Reedsburg Free Press reported that the citizens of the village of Loganville were treated to the passage through town of one of these annually appearing medicine shows. “Loganville seems to have a great supply at present of the so called ‘doctors’. Whenever a fake appears in a locality there are always victims and the greater the fake the greater the mystery, but people like to be humbugged. There is no reason now for having rheumatism, fever sores, cold feet or liver complaint when you can get an ounce of chopped leaves, roots and gums for one dollar, that is said to cure you!” Another common ingredient in these elixirs of life was a large percentage of alcohol or whisky. It's no wonder people felt better after consuming a dose of this miracle medicine.

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In September, our Loganville writer wearily notes that “The medicine show is still here conducted by the ‘super human’, entertaining a small crowd, largely children. But the wonderful cures fail to materialize except in the mind of the one who vainly attempts to lecture. From appearances, wealth is not accumulating immensely,” noted the correspondent, “and the talk of going duck hunting seems more appropriate.”

A week later we learn that, “The glimmering medicine show has faded away, have folded their tents and have left for greener fields. No one mourns their departure except those who have paid their hard earned dollars for the three cents worth of physic.”

The science of medicine, in 1892, had progressed to the point where it could offer a cure for the oft’ manifested malady of over indulgence, and one of Loganville’s noted healers had a corner on the market. “Dr. Skiff has opened an office for the ‘Improved Gold Cure’ treatment, and is already giving patients ‘Gold Jabs’. The success of the Gold Cure for drunkenness is daily being manifested. Many a man is being saved a premature death, and many a home made happier,” claimed the good doctor.

Another report from Loganville in 1906, mentioned that there was a medicine troupe in town one day, “but they left on account of the good health of the people there.”

In the early 20th century, people were becoming more discerning and informed, and they relied less on the patent medicines and more on the advice of qualified physicians. Commercial pharmaceuticals were also being produced in large quantities and the home remedies peddled by the medicine shows were history. These shows then began relying more on entertainment to attract crowds.

In December of 1910 it was noted, “The Quaker Medicine Company, who had been giving free entertainment at Westedt’s (hall, Loganville) for the last two weeks, gave their last entertainment Monday evening. Many local contestants were awarded prizes:  Mrs. Dr. Westedt received a silver sugar bowl in the ladies nail driving contest, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Fisher Sr. received the silver cracker jar being the oldest married couple to get upon the stage, Miss Ida Gall received the gold watch and chain given in the amateur contest and Anna Schrank received the silver water pitcher for being the most popular young lady.”

Traveling medicine shows persisted in some form or another, up until the 1930s, when radio and motion pictures supplanted the entertainment aspect of the performances.

If people really believed that these concoctions cured them, perhaps they did have some beneficial effect. There’s scientific evidence concerning the healing properties of the mind, and if ailments weren’t too severe, perhaps people really did feel better after a few swallows of the wonderful concoctions peddled by these intrepid snake oil salesmen.