Snake Oil, Hustlers and Hambones

The American Medicine Show


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About the Book

Long before television and radio commercials beckoned to potential buyers, the medicine show provided free entertainment and promised cures for everything from corns to cancer. Combining elements of the circus, theater, vaudeville, and good old-fashioned entrepreneurship, the showmen of the American medicine show sold tonics, ointments, pills, extracts and a host of other “wonder-cures,” guaranteed to “cure what ails you.” While the cures were seldom miraculous, the medicine show was an important part of American culture and of performance history. Harry Houdini, Buster Keaton, and P.T. Barnum all took a turn upon the medicine show stage.
This study of the medicine show phenomenon surveys nineteenth century popular entertainment and provides insight into the ways in which show business, advertising, and medicine manufacture developed in concert. The colorful world of the medicine show, with its Wild West shows, pie-eating contests, clowns, and menageries, is fully explored. Photographs of performers and of the fascinating handbills and posters used to promote the medicine show are included.

About the Author(s)

Ann Anderson is a freelance writer, teacher, actor and director. Her articles and essays have appeared in Stage Directions, Prevention and Health, among many other publications. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Bibliographic Details

Ann Anderson
Foreword by Heinrich R. Falk
Format: softcover (7 x 10)
Pages: 200
Bibliographic Info: photos, appendices, notes, bibliography, index
Copyright Date: 2005 [2000]
pISBN: 978-0-7864-2228-9
eISBN: 978-1-4766-0112-0
Imprint: McFarland

Table of Contents

Foreword by Heinrich R. Falk      ix

1. Origins and Influences      1
2. Colonial and Pioneer Medicine Set the Stage for the Patent-Medicine Industry      20
3. Patent Medicines: Good for What Ails You      31
4. Museums, Circuses, and the Wild, Wild West      48
5. Blackface and Slapstick      74
6. That Old-Time Religion      91
7. Street Corners and Big Tents      103
8. Medicine—Show Life and Tricks of the Trade      126
9. Yahoo, Hadacol!      147
10. The Curtain Comes Down      156

Appendix I: “All Run Down”      165
Appendix II: “Heart Failure”      167
Appendix III: Temperance Songs      169
Chapter Notes      171
Bibliography      183
Index      191

Book Reviews & Awards

“delightful, comprehensive, and well-documented”—Choice; “useful”—Public Library Quarterly; “well illustrated and documented, as well as entertaining”—C&RL News; “informative and entertaining…very readable…useful”—Medical History; “charming…amusing details”—Fate; “fascinating and well-written…excellent”—Journal of the History of Medicine; “complete and thorough”—The Trade Card Place; “a fascinating look at a bygone world”—Ashe Mountain Times.