Reading a late 19th Century edition of the Milford Cabinet – or any other paper from that era – was a little like perusing the inventory of a snake oil salesman. Long before the days of the FDA, every newspaper and magazine teemed with dozens of advertisements and bogus news articles promoting dubious cure-alls for just about every ailment imaginable. To see how ubiquitous these suspect panaceas were, let’s look at just one randomly chosen Milford Farmer’s Cabinet from the morning of January 12, 1899.
While the front page of that day’s paper may have been concerned with the poultry exhibition at town hall, the death of local engineer Charles Parks Birney and the town’s decision to exempt JB Murray & Co. from local taxation, the inside pages read more like the inventory of a drug store – and not a very reputable one at that.
Some of the ads aren’t so much deceptive as overblown. On Page 4, W.F. French of Milford offers Kodol, a supposed cure for dyspepsia: “It instantly relieves and permanently cures everything from indigestion to flatulence” he proclaims, while on the other side of the page, Humphrey’s Witch Hazel Oil is more questionably offered as a cure for piles, bunions and even tumors.
Victorian mores made ads for “ladies’ products” rather vague. Mme. Le’ Claire’s Famous French Remedy obliquely mentions that her formula never fails “as a periodical regulator.” 25 two-cent stamps would bring a trial package in the mail. While Dr. King’s Star Crown Brand Pennyroyal Pills simply states that female users have “immediate relief, no danger, no pain,” without ever specifying their need. Another ad advises on Page 7 that “healthy, happy girls, often from no apparent cause, become languid and despondent in the early days of their womanhood.” A “Dr. Williams” puts forth a cure - his Pink Pills for Pale People.
Throughout the paper, products from the questionable to the quacky are deceptively advertised in faux news stories, featuring an identical font, heading and layout as legitimate news. On Page 6 an “article” entitled "Kidney Talk" includes a graphic of a doctor pointing to a diagram while proceeding to outline the descent of kidney health from backache to diabetes to death while declaring that “Doan’s Kidney Pills could step in and change the program by removing the cause of the trouble and making the kidneys strong and well.”
Another advertisement dressed up as a news story with a four-banner headline includes Mrs. Ed W. Hinds of Fitchburg describing how Dr. Green’s “Nervura” completely cured her arthritis. One doctor said he “could do nothing for me,” until Dr. Green’s Nervura “gave me a new lease on life. Now I can enjoy life and I ride between five and six miles each day.”
The paper also includes random, unverified personal stories. The article “I Was Completely Helpless with Rheumatism” describes the predicament of a “W.H. Rhoads” of Windham, Vermont: “I could not move, the least bit of jar would make me shout with pain.” But upon taking Hood’s Sarsaparilla – just two bottles for that matter – Rhoads was back to vigorously working on his Vermont farm. On the same page, the attention-getting “Swift’s Specific SSS for the Blood” apparently reversed the scrofula that attacked the eyesight of Ruth Berkeley’s granddaughter in Salina, Kansas.
As medical historian James Young has written, “The medicine man’s key task in these years quickly became not production but sales, the job of persuading ailing citizens to buy his particular brand from among the hundreds offered. Whether unscrupulous or self-deluded, nostrum makers set about this task with cleverness and zeal.” There is no doubt that – at least on January 12, 1899 – the ailing citizens of Milford were being petitioned with great zeal indeed.