When you look at the types of patent medicines that were sold in the mid to late 19th Century, it’s hard to imagine why intelligent people would fall victim to what can be best described as fraud on a massive scale. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that most of the medicines hawked by folks like H. H. Warner had, little, if any medicinal value, and perhaps could do real harm by exposing the would-be patient to all manner of substances like mercury or cocaine. What you have to bear in mind is that medicine in the 19th Century bore little resemblence to what it is today. For starters, medical schools really did not exist. It was not until the early 1890’s that the eminent Johns Hopkins Medical School was opened. The profession of physician was taught much like a trade with no requirements for formal education or standardized course of study. In short, you were allowed to call yourself “doctor” because you wanted to. Hence, the vast majority of “doctors” whose names appeared on patent medicines had little or no medical training and may have been altogether fictional.
With that background in mind, it is easy to understand why the average consumer in the late Victorian era would have beeen so easily swayed by the types of claims made by the makers of patent medicine. If you got sick, it was some comfort that a bottle of Safe Cure could set you straight. In essence, the more desperate you were, the more likely you were to accept the notion that all could be made right by gulping down a bottle brown liquid laced with who knows what with a little (or maybe a lot) of alcohol for good measure.
The fact that people in a desperate situation would be the most likely to accept the outrageous claims of patent medicine proprietors was not lost on H. H. Warner. Indeed, his advertising often played to the notion that his remedies offered hope to the hopeless. The advertisement at the beginning of this post is a rare British ad depicting a mother and child on a life raft adrift in rough seas attempting to flag down the HMS Reliable with a shaft of light on Warner’s Safe Cure. Below are two similar ads with the same appeal to those in peril who need rescue.
Both of these great example show Warner’s Safe Cure and Safe Yeast as a “beacon of light” to the distressed. But before you think what a bunch of dolts those Victorians were for believing such a pile of rubbish, think about how much money is spent each year in the United States on herbal remedies and miracle weight loss products. As it turns out, we may not be so far removed from our Victorian ancestors. We too are all too ready to shell out money for false hope.