When you think of bunions, and warts, the image of a blooming red rose may not immediately come to mind. But beautifully rendered flowers were often printed on medical advertisements in the late 19th century, along with songbirds and other charming scenes of nature, to sell everything from corn salves to laxatives.
These small, light cardboard cards, known as trade cards, proliferated in the last two decades of the 1800s. They were distributed by merchants to their customers to promote their products, and many of the most elaborately and skillfully designed ones were those from the pharmaceutical industry. As freely given pictures with color — a novelty at the time — they were cherished, collected, and saved in scrapbooks like treasured baseball cards.
Scholar and leading collector of medical ephemera William H. Helfand amassed about 300 examples of these ads for ailments, and he donated his entire stockpile to the New York Academy of Medicine’s (NYAM) Library between 1986 and 1992. For the first time ever, the complete collection is now publicly available, thanks to the NYAM’s recently launched website for digital collections and exhibits, which is a medical history nerd’s dream trove.
Helfand’s pharmaceutical trade cards, printed between 1875 and 1925, arrive mostly from the United States, although a handful were made in Europe. Credit, unfortunately, was rarely given to the artists who designed and rendered them, but it’s clear these individuals had wonderful talent for branding cures for any gross or unpleasant maladies through the most pleasant of visuals. Besides birds and blossoms, images of cuddly animals, cherubs, and children at play helped to market gastrine, multi-purpose syrups, and blood purifiers. A trade card advertising Ayer’s Hair Vigor even ventures into the realm of mythology, featuring five mermaids applying the liquid cure to gray hair, baldness, dandruff, and more.
As NYAM’s Head of Cataloging Becky Filner recently wrote, most of these saccharine pictures were designed to appeal to women and children. But the eye-catching cards, which detailed their product’s curative properties on their backsides, were likely old examples of false advertising. Known as patent medicines, these remedies could be purchased without a prescription, and they were widely sold at a time before the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Trade Commission established regulations to control distribution of harmful or simply useless products. Filner quotes the following passage from Walker Bingham’s 1994 book, The Snake-Oil Syndrome: Patent Medicine Advertising:
It is probable that most of the nineteenth century patent medicines had no effect at all on the diseases that they were sold to cure. They were not even palliatives. Some sufferers may have been misled into taking patent medicines instead of more effective (and possibly more expensive) drugs prescribed by a doctor, but generally speaking, at that stage of medical learning there was often little that any doctor could do for a patient with a serious disease except give emotional support.
The fact that many of these cure-alls were simply nostrums may be obvious to us today: the trade card advertising Cas-car-ria, notably, features five demons symbolizing just a few of the ailments the tonic — personified as a dog — purported to treat: liver complaints, kidney diseases, rheumatism, debility, and even nervousness.
Furthermore, these patent medicines often contained rather surprising ingredients, such as alcohol, opium, morphine, and even cocaine and heroin. Imagine a child digesting Dr. Ingham’s Nervine Pain Extractor, which was really 86% alcohol plus opium alkaloids, camphor, capsicum, and vegetable extractive matter. The illustrations of these trade cards may appear innocent or even amuse, but they also represent records of a darker part of Western medical history.