The Medicine Show:
A Brief History

Across rural America, one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the 19th Century was the medicine show; a unique combination of divertisement, demagoguery and hokum. Although it is often perceived as a purely American phenomenon, its roots can be traced back to the "mountebank and zany shows" that flourished throughout medieval Europe.

The mountebank made his living peddling pills, ointments and herbal tonics in city and village streets. From a small stage, he pitched his products, delivering a pompous speech which claimed untold miracle cures. He enticed crowd with the assistance of a clownish partner (a zany), who gained attention with skillful displays of juggling and tumbling. Together, while extolling the marvels of their nostrums, the pair would perform farcical skits and magic tricks to the audience's delight. It was a style of entertainment that would endure for centuries.

The American counterpart of the mountebank was a nearly ubiquitous presence in the West from 1860 on. No hamlet beyond the Missouri River was too remote for this breed of nomadic hustler with his potions and lotions. The entertainment he presented might include music, sword swallowing, fire eating, juggling, magic, ventriloquism or fortune telling. The products were many and varied; with names like Lydia Pinkham's Compound For Female Weakness, Prof. Low's Liniment & Worm Syrup, Dalley's Magical Pain Extractor, Dr. Kilmer's Swamproot, Hood's Sarsaparilla, Wistar's Balsam of Wild Cherry, Dr. King's New Discovery, Edgar's Cathartic Confection and Schenck's Mandrake Pills.

The Big Sensation Medicine Company was an imposing show that featured a cast of 30 performers under a canvas tent with room for 1,500 potential customers. Its most persuasive come-on was the promise of free dentistry. Hamlin Wizard Oil of Chicago had 30 shows on the road at one time, each with a large inventory of tonics, pills and cough balsam, a dapper pitch man and a male quartet to entertain credulous crowds. In 1900, the Kickapoo Indian Oil Company boasted having 200 one-man shows touring the country simultaneously.

Over the years, Hollywood has perpetuated the notion that medicine show hucksters were men of dubious character. Remember W.C. Fields in "Poppy," Prof. Marvel in "The Wizard of Oz," or Doc Meriweather in "Little Big Man?" In truth, most medicine shows marketed legitimate products; including Doan's Pills, Carter's Little Liver Pills, Geritol, Castoria, Bromo-Seltzer and Bayer Aspirin. One product, Dr. Pepper's Tonic, wasn't accepted as a blood purifier, but folks enjoyed it as a carbonated beverage. Many of the old herbal remedies sold at medicine shows are being rediscovered by both the public and the medical community. They include Chamomile, St. John's Wort, Goldenseal and Snake Root (Echinacea).

Today, Prof. B. T. Farquar is among a handful of professional entertainers nation wide, who are dedicated to re-creating the excitement of the old-time medicine show; a tribute to a style of showmanship and salemanship that has earned its place as a part of American's cultural legacy!