The North American medicine show was an itinerant form of marketing that flourished in small towns and rural areas in the 19th century by combining entertainment with the sale of pills and potions of dubious medicinal value. The entrepreneurs who made and sold these quack remedies developed an impressive arsenal of promotional techniques.
Although traveling medicine shows first showed up in America as early as the 1700s, it was in the last five decades of the 19th century that they enjoyed the greatest popularity. The Pure Food & Drug Act of 1906 sounded their death knell, and by 1920 few survived.
After the Civil War, makers of patent medicines regarded touring shows as living billboards. First among the major manufacturers that capitalized on the strategy, John A. Hamlin mounted his own touring company in the 1870s to sell Hamlin's Wizard Oil: "The great medical conqueror." Performers wore frock coats, silk hats and spats and dropped in to sing with church choirs.
Three selling themes
There were three broad themes among the traveling show people. First were those who capitalized upon the public's image of Quakers as gentle and honest folk; they dressed in fawn-colored clothing, wore wide-brimmed, low-crowned hats and called each other "thee," "thou" and "brother." So-called Oriental healers were also popular because the Far East symbolized mystery and exotic wisdom. Using names such as "Lotus Blossom," some pretenders claimed to have escaped from China or Tibet. But the greatest crowd-pleasers—because Wild West shows had idealized Native Americans as "noble savages" who understood nature's secrets—were the "Indian" medicine men.
Never far from the circus, one of its key sources of performers, a medicine show usually was preceded by some sort of spectacle to gather a crowd. Major shows were heralded by a parade down Main Street, with a band if one was available.
Because minor discomfort focused the audience's attention, and thereby increased sales, an outdoor site was preferred to a hall, and a street corner where loiterers could be drawn in was ideal. The opening entertainment might consist of slapstick comedy, a balladeer accompanied by a banjo player or Indians chanting and dancing in front of a teepee. When the "doctor" appeared, he was likely to address the audience as "my friends" and state his objectives: first, to win their good will by sharing the latest medical marvel with them and, next, to accomplish the surest kind of advertising in the form of satisfied customers.
As licensing and regulations became stricter near the turn of the century, more sophisticated grifters teamed up with an "examiner," a medical doctor who could present bona fide credentials despite having a drinking problem or some other disability that prevented him from carrying on a settled practice. The M.D. not only conferred an air of legitimacy but also brought in more money.
Every package of medicine sold would have a ticket attached that entitled the holder to a so-called full, complete and scientific examination performed by a qualified physician. The diagnosis varied to fit the patient, but its tenor was always the same: More "medicine" was needed. If the examiner discovered some malady he could treat, he would quote a large fee (usually an odd amount, laboriously calculated). A combination of fear and pride often inspired the patient to come up with the money.
Kickapoo Indian Medicine Co.
The most famous and highly regarded of the touring shows was sent out by the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Co., organized in 1881 by John Healey and Charles Bigelow, who had no connection to the Indian tribe. In their heyday, the "Kicks" annually sent out more than 70 carnival companies, most of which included an Indian "brave" and maybe even a woman with a papoose. But the man selling the remedies was always an "Indian agent," dressed in buckskin. These remedies included a cough syrup (made of rum and molasses), a "worm expeller" and the company's best-seller—a concoction called Kickapoo Indian Sagwa.
Advertised as a cure for digestive problems and rheumatism, "Sagwa" (the word was made up) was supposed to have been concocted by elders of the Kickapoo tribe, with a secret ingredient that defied laboratory analysis. Ads included an endorsement from Buffalo Bill Cody, who claimed that Sagwa once saved his life and added, "An Indian would as soon be without his horse, gun or blanket as without Sagwa."
The company's advertising magazines also used a fabricated symbol of Indian healing, the princess "Little Bright Eye," whose sayings accompanied idealized illustrations of "Life and Scenes" among the Kickapoos at home in the West.
The tours ended in 1914, but imitators persisted as late as the 1930s.