Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


Remember Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comic strip sometimes featuring barrels of a tonic called "Kickapoo Joy Juice." The stuff was a cure-all, youth-restoring patent medicine, somehow inspired by the Kickapoo Indian Tribe in Oklahoma.

The term "patent medicine" is in itself an ironic twist, because the brew usually is a home-made remedy that has not been patented. Often it is a nostrum--a medicine of questionable scheme involving a secret ingredient that has not been scientifically tested.

Nostrums appeared as a tonic or elixir, an ointment or a salve, and the marketing techniques often included traveling medicine shows with entertainment, muscle men, trained circus animals and vaudeville acts. Often the patent medicine was manufactured and bottled in the same wagon. The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company of Connecticut became one of the largest show operators, yet it had nothing in common with any Indian tribe.

Magnetism and hypnosis were even used by the medicine show men. Native American themes were common because although Indians were considered to be savages, they were thought to be in tune with nature. Ingredients often included narcotics, opiates and laxatives.

One group of patent medicine liniments contained snake oil and made the "snake oil salesman" a synonym for charlatan. A few items such as Luden’s cough drops and Fletcher’s Castoria lived on, were later patented, and have survived to the present as brand names.

In the early days, the history of these "patent medicines" is intertwined with the history of medicine itself. Physicians made concoctions from herbs and minerals, and some of their knowledge came from Indian medicine men. Nature holds many clues to the discovery of effective drugs, and by applying some magic to pharmacology, physicians made remedies, some of which were proven successful.

Several American institutions owe their existence to the patent medicine industry, such as almanacs, medicine manufacturers, and USA Today, which began as a periodical promoting a nostrum made from the fruit of the baobab tree.

Several from Van Buren County had patented medicines or tonics that became widely used. After seeing advertising for Dr. Taylor’s Hair Tonic, a bald Baptist minister in New Jersey bought a bottle, applied it to his scalp as directed, and before finishing the contents, he had grown a luxurious head of hair.

This wonderful tonic could be purchased from promoters in Bentonsport, Iowaville and Farmington.

Mr. Taylor was Keosauqua’s druggist on First Street in 1849. From the list of things he sold, his store must have resembled Lee’s Drug Store….except that narcotics were legal and Mr. Taylor sold opium and morphine over the counter along with his hair tonic.

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick