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  • Carrie Taylor, Museum Director

Patent Medicines and the False Hopes of Miracle Cures

In the late 19th century with the growth of manufacturing capacity to meet demands from the growing consumer market, there was an explosion of “patent medicines.” These were mass produced proprietary concoctions purported to cure a variety of ailments that underwent no testing to prove their efficacy or safety. Many included harmful ingredients that did not cure disease or alleviate symptoms and often only made illnesses worse. These remedies only succeeding in making fortunes for their manufacturers at the expense of desperate consumers. One survivor of this patent medicine craze is Listerine mouthwash.

Listerine was formulated in St. Louis, Missouri in 1879 by Dr. Joseph Lawrence and Jordan Wheat Lambert and first sold as a surgical disinfectant. Later it was sold in distilled form and promoted as a dandruff cure, floor cleaner, hair tonic, deodorant, and a "beneficial remedy" for several diseases including diphtheria, dysentery, smallpox, and gonorrhea.

By the 1920s, the company’s advertising promoted it as a cure to a malady Americans did not even know they suffered from – “chronic halitosis.” Listerine’s profits increased 60 times increasing revenue in seven years from $115,000 to more than $8 million. (Freakonomics, 87) The idea that Listerine had healing qualities continued well into the 20th century. In 1976, the Federal Trade Commission ordered the manufacturers of Listerine to spend $10 million on an advertising campaign to debunk claims it could prevent colds and sore throats or lessen their severity.

More recently in 2020, claims surfaced online that Listerine could kill the COVID-19 virus causing the company to post a disclaimer urging people to follow World Health Organization hygiene guidelines and not gargle Listerine or use it as a hand sanitizer.

Image credit: 1895-1906, National Museum of American History.

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