Monday, May 20, 2024

A Wild West Icon: The Traveling Medicine Show

What did folks do for entertainment in the Wild West? Well, yes. A certain element of society occupied themselves with gambling, drinking, and ladies of easy virtue. What about everyone else? I’m talking about the homesteaders, merchants, and school teachers who forged a life for themselves by honest labor. These townsfolk might meet at religious observances or socialize at occasions like barn dances, weddings, and harvest parties. However, most of the time they stayed home and were content to take care of household chores. That changed whenever the Medicine Show rolled into town.

A Wild West Icon: The Traveling Medicine Show by Janalyn Voigt

From the mid-1800’s to early in 1900, a uniquely American extravaganza promoted intriguing products offered by patent medicine companies. Based on the performances of traveling charlatans who stepped into the gap after circuses and theaters were banned in 14th-century Europe, the Medicine Show featured acts usually found in a circus. Jugglers, muscle men, magicians, singers and dancers, and ventriloquists were among the performers. Wild West and Native American themes abounded, although the shows also appeared in others parts of America. Sometimes the shows took on Indian names due to the Indian-named medicines they offered, a variation called a traveling Indian Medicine Show.

"Indian tonics occupied a special niche in old medicine shows, and the Kickapoo Indian tribe salesmen were extremely successful in selling theirs by putting on an impressive show to draw in customers. “New Nationalism” (drum) was Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive platform in the 1912 presidential election. This 1910 lithograph depicts an Indian medicine show performer trying his best to sell “Outlook Tonic” to a crowd of skeptics." FDA

Smooth-talking “medicine men” billed as “doctors” or “professors” extolled the virtues of elixers, medicines, linaments and ointments from the back of ornate wagons. The slick salesmen convinced their audiences that their potions could remedy almost any ailment, including veneral disease, tuberculosis, colic, digestive ailments, female complaints, and even cancer. Many of the linaments contained snake oil, which gave rise to the term “snake-oil salesman” to describe the dishonest salesman of an ineffective product.

Many of the supposed miracle cures did not pass muster, but buyers wouldn’t realize this until after the show moved on. A few were laced with alcohol, morphine, opium, or cocaine and marketed for children. Actual doctors and medical scholars objected to patent medicines, complaining that they didn’t work, created drug and alcohol dependencies, and kept sick people from seeking professional treatment, In the late 19th century, temperance adherents objected to the use of alcohol in medicines.

This product contained cocaine. Visual motif: Shows young woman emerging from behind a pillar on which is written Brown's Iron Bitters.

Responding the the prevailing pressures, in 1881 drug manufacturers founded “The Proprietary Association” and fought the calls for regulation. They were aided in the mission by the press, which enjoyed advertizing dollars from medicine makers. Despite their efforts, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 demanded that ingredients appear on medicine labels. It also cracked down on false advertising.

"This is one of five printed, gummed labels for patent medicines marketed as cures for Cholera Morbus, a historical, obsolete term for a gastrointestinal ailment characterized by fever, diarrhea, and vomiting. Each label includes specific medicine names, such as Cholera Balm and McLaughlin's Magic Relief, as well as dosage instructions." Science History Institute, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Not all medicine-show products were “quack medicine.” Some, like Pepto Bismol, Listerine, Bayer Aspirin, Milk of Magnesia. Ex-Lax, and Richardson’s Croup and Pneumonia Cure Salve (modern-day Vick’s Vaporub) withstood the test of time.

I had fun researching traveling medicine shows for The Promise Tree, part of the Montana Gold western historical romance series. In the story, young Liberty Hayes' search for answers to her identity leads her to an unexpected surprise at a medicine show. 

About Janalyn Voigt

Janalyn Voigt fell in love with literature at an early age when her father read chapters from classics as bedtime stories. When Janalyn grew older, she put herself to sleep with tales "written" in her head. Today Janalyn is a storyteller who writes western historical romance and medieval epic fantasy. Romance, mystery, adventure, history, and whimsy appear in all her novels in proportions dictated by their genre.



  1. This was fascinating.. Thanks for sharing. Love your books too.

  2. Thank you for posting today. I'm glad a bit of regulation came in to help the misuse of narcotics sold "over the counter" as it were. I'll leave the whole rest of that can of worms unopened.