My final project for historical archaeology explored the complex history of the patent medicine era in America. Prompted by an interest in embossed medicine bottles studied in this class and my museum curation course at the Burke Museum, this subject was far more extensive than I ever imagined. In my paper, I focused on the social and industrial components that created a climate of self-diagnosis and self-medication, which reached its zenith during the Victorian period.
I argued that one of the most important and pivotal of these topics was the boom in advertising during the 19th century. For me, the most fascinating advertising strategies of the patent medicine industry were directed at women. In my opinion, it was nearly unprecedented at the time to
find such direct consumerism targeted at a demographic that were socially and politically oppressed like Victorian women. Doctoring manuals for women doubled as both advertisements and how-to guides to take care of one’s family. These publications put women in the position of “the family doctor,” but at the same time would reiterate the weakness and frailty of “the female patients” (Apple 1990:322). In addition, advertisements would intertwine the ideas of female morality and health. Precautions regarding the “evils of insufficient clothing” imparted how women’s fashion, by exposing parts of the body, could lead to disease and death by consumption (Hechtlinger 1970:95).
I found the duality of the advertising tactics towards women as confusing, frustrating, and captivating all at the same time. My modern feminist perspective makes it difficult to glean many positive aspects from some condescending advertisements.
However, with oppressive social directives separating Victorian women from medical professionals, it could be said that the patent medicine industry was giving women some power over their own bodies. That was definitely not an angle I expected to discover while researching patent medicines and snake oils. It was an extremely interesting topic and one I would continue to research further.
Apple, Rima D. 1990 Women, Health, and Medicine in America : A Historical Handbook. Garland Reference Library of Social Science ; v. 483. New York: Garland Pub.
Hechtlinger, Adelaide 1974 The Great Patent Medicine Era: Or, Without Benefit of Doctor. New York: Galahad Books.