Pontil Medicine Encyclopedia 2007

Another early entrepreneur was William Swaim. His is a real Horatio Alger tale. Some sources have his humble beginnings as a harness maker and others as a bookbinder. It isn’t known how he came upon the formula for his Panacea. Some say that he was given the recipe by a French Physician, but however he came by the formula, beginning about 1820, he quickly parlayed the knowledge into a thriving business.

Swaim’s timing couldn’t have been better. Epidemics plagued the young country and in part must have help fuel the “medicinal fire” that was building. In 1793, influenza and a “putrid fever” hit Vermont and Virginia. In 1793, Philadelphia suffered a yellow fever epidemic (one of worst). In 1793 Pennsylvania (Harrisburg & Middletown) had many unexplained deaths. Again in 1794, 1796, 1797, and 1798, yellow fever hit Philadelphia: hard. In 1803 it spread to New York. From 1820-23 there was a nationwide: "fever" (which started on Schuylkill River, PA & spread).

William Swaim moved to Philadelphia and began to heavily advertise his “Swaim’s Panacea,” for the cure of scrofula, general debility, diseases of the liver, and diseases arising from impurities of the blood. Despite its hefty cost ($3.00 per bottle) it quickly became a national seller. Swaim, like his earlier counterparts, designed a unique container for his medicine. He recruited agents and set up a network of distributors. His remedy eventually made its way across the Atlantic to the English shores and beyond. By 1849, Jas. Swaim, presumably William’s son, was advertising agents in New York, London, Montreal, Havana, Valparaiso, and Buenos Ayres [sic].

That Swaim and Dyott began their ventures in Philadelphia was no accident. Philadelphia was the birthplace of pharmacy in this country. Perfectly located with a seaport to receive raw materials, the city gave rise to both the sites of the First College of Pharmacy and the first association of pharmacists in the country. Quakers, who made up a large portion of that group, decried the low state of dispensing of drugs and medicines in the Commonwealth. In addition to the many qualified pharmacists were hundreds of pretenders. The association’s efforts and that of others to achieve respectability became a battle that was to last through the remainder of the century before the proprietary medicine beast was tamed.

As had happened one hundred years earlier in England, the boom in the medicine industry spawned numerous counterfeiters and imitators. William Swaim had his. There was Dr. H. Swayne, also of Philadelphia who hawked a long line of “Celebrated Family Medicines” including the incredibly similar sounding name of Dr. Swayne’s Panacea. Similarly, Dr. Swan’s Panacea appears to have been another knock-off brand created to capitalize on the good name of William Swaim. The origin and identity of the proprietor of Dr. Swan’s Panacea have been lost. One can presume, judging from the rarity of his bottles, that the copying benefited him little.

This practice of rival makers copying or stealing names or formulas is not unique. Quite the contrary, success was regularly imitated. Among the great rarities in the field of collecting pontil medicines are those which were or might have been knock-off brands. For example, Brant’s Indian Pulmonary Balsam was a national best seller, but a unique knock-off bottle, quite different in style than the well known Brant’s, and embossed Brant’s Indian Balsam was found some years ago in Iowa. (See Brant’s). James C. Ayers, who ran his business out of Lowell, Massachusetts, had his troubles as well. Bottles of his widely advertised Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral are common today because the brand was so successful and so many specimens survived. However, an Ayer’s Pectoral Syrup marked from Brownsville, New York, very similar in style to the Ayer’s product is known and has such a similar name it appears to be an imitator.

If the advertisements are to be believed, the Comstock Company was one of the most blatant counterfeiters of the times. The company began with Edwin Comstock who was selling medicines about 1831. He was joined by his brother Lucius and later by brothers John and George. Apparently the brothers argued a great deal and had constant falling-outs. A lawsuit about 1850 caused the firm to split into two firms. The new one being run by John & George was likely what was called the Empire Company. The list of products advertised by the new company was a long list of knock-off brands including: Houck’s Panacea, Oxygenated Bitters, Gay’s Canchalagua and Hay’s Liniments, all well established names in the business.

Counterfeiting seemed part of the Comstock standard operating procedure. John Rowan of Philadelphia had a run-in with the Comstocks when they put out a Rowland’s Tonic Mixture to play upon his top seller, Rowan’s Tonic Mixture. Wm. Burrit accused the Comstocks of stealing the name Taylor’s Balsam of Liverwort a well-known brand name he controlled. Henry Dalley, proprietor of Dalley’s Magical Pain Extractor put down the Comstock imitation called Dalley’s Magic Pain Extractor. Although their methods weren’t sophisticated, they were probably moderately successful.

Numerous other examples of brand imitation, and name-stealing can be found in the text of this book. I strongly suspect that there are many more such examples of which we are not even aware. What might to some collectors appear to be a mold variation or bottle variant, may in fact be bottles produced by pretenders or counterfeiters. All manners of tricks were used. Advertisements of the times warn that imitators would refill the bottles of well-known brands. Occasionally proprietors would write testimonials for their products signed with the names of their competitors. One ad asked the purchaser of the product to cut up the labels so they couldn’t be affixed to another bottle. Ubiquitous warnings in newspapers and on labels said: “Beware of counterfeits,” or the cautioned “None genuine without the signature of the proprietor,” or as one proprietor put it “Be sure and get the genuine article, as there is some spurious stuff about the country.” If the counterfeiting hurt the proprietary medicine makers profits, it did little to slow the industry’s progress.

Scoundrels and hucksters were not the only problem. Also competing with the proprietary manufacturers were thousands of druggists and apothecaries across the country who established businesses in every town small and large. They were selling drugs and compounding their own medicines, but due to the popularity of the proprietary brands and the tidy profits realized, druggists stocked their shelves with what the public demanded - the patent medicine. Week after week people were exposed to the beguiling ads of Dr. D. Jayne, William Swaim or James Ayers. When illness did strike, they recalled the testimonials of their friends and neighbors and requested the familiar muddy brown bottled liquids.

Just as English patent medicine formulas had been counterfeited in the early colonial apothecary, the practice continued throughout the 19th Century. Druggists put up their own imitations of the popular proprietary medicines thereby increasing their profit margins. The fact this practice became commonplace is revealed in the American Druggist Circular and Chemical Gazette, (April 1, 1858) in an article on “Hair Specifics” where the author states, “The number of hair specifics, which are now vended under the astounding names of Wahpene, Tricopherous &c., is really wonderful. It is professed for them that they restore the hair (curing baldness), prevent it falling out, give it a beautifully soft and glossy appearance and either kill or cure all the ills that hair ‘is heir to.’ Judging from the number of establishments where such articles are manufactured, the quantity sold must be prodigious; and judging from the prices at which they are sold, the profits arising from them cannot be small. That some of these lotions are good in their way, there can be no room to doubt; but the merits of the best are greatly exaggerated by those who sell them. We will give a few recipes for making such specifics, so that those of our readers who wish to use them can make the preparations themselves.” It was pointed out later in articles that these recipes were as good as any and could be made at comparatively little cost.

To protect their brands, proprietors sometimes filed lawsuits. Newspaper references advertising to such actions are common. Sometimes the lawsuit progress was played out in the newspapers of the day. Goldsmith Coffeen, proprietor of Coffeen’s Chinese Liniment and John Loree maker of Loree’s Ohio Liniment waged a such battle for months in the back columns of the Western Star. Each one claimed the other to be an imposter, all the while touting the virtues of their own product. Coffeen bragged how he had won a court decision against Loree (in another state). Loree published his denials and accusations. Oddly enough this battle ended when Loree married Coffeen’s daughter and the two took up cahoots together.

Patents were another means of protection. A number of proprietors, William Swaim amongst them, (so he claims), received patents from the United State Government Patent Office. Swaim even embossed the word Patent on his bottles. These patents granted in the early 1800s were for the product’s formula and most were not renewed upon reapplication. The House of Representatives conducted a debate over the issue in 1849 and thereafter the number of patents for medicines declined significantly. More stringent evidence of the efficacy of the product was required.

In the first three decades of the 1800s, there was little centralization in the medicinal industry. Outside of the relatively few national brands, most brands were local. Proprietors such as William B. Moffat owner of Phoenix Bitters began national newspaper advertising campaigns in the 1830s. The expense of such ventures limited the number of manufacturers who could mount such an effort. Beginning in the 1840s, larger drug concerns began to appear and dominate the market. Proprietors like Dr. David Jayne & Sons, James Ayers, A.B. & D. Sands and Dr. William Evans through shrewd advertising and business practice made their products names household words. Agencies and depots were set up in major cities around the country. For example, by 1846 the Comstock Company had depots in Boston, Philadelphia, New York, St. Louis and New Orleans.


The major cities attracted hundreds of would-be medicine men. For every proprietor, like David Jayne or James Ayers (whose fortune numbered in the millions) there were hundreds and perhaps thousands of lesser known men whose brands were known regionally. Others success extended no further than their own neighborhood or small town. New York and Philadelphia spawned the highest number of would-be entrepreneurs. In New York City, an address on Broadway became the place to do business. A New York address meant not only legitimacy and prestige, but also a chance to rub elbows with the elite in the drug circle. When Professor Orlando J. Wood of St. Louis, proprietor of Wood’s Hair Restorative, decided to set up a depot in New York City, he chose 312 Broadway. There he would be surrounded by best in the business. For Broadway was home to some of the biggest selling proprietary brands. There dwelled the proprietors of Brandreth’s Pills, Christie’s Magnetic Balsam, Comstock’s Empire Company, Moffat’s Phoenix Bitters, Lyon’s Powders, the Graefenberg’s Family Medicines, Sanford’s Liver Invigorator and hundreds of other well-known companies.

Many of these medicine men must have known each other and done business together. Brands were commonly bought and sold. It is no surprise that in most major cities they congregated in specific areas, often on only a few major streets. Several concerns, among them A,B & D. Sands and Barnes and Park acquired large numbers of top selling brands, in part, probably due to close proximity of so many would-be competitors. These mega-businesses, unlike their smaller counterparts, had the money to advertise in hundreds of newspapers on a daily basis, thereby ensuring their position.

Philadelphia too had its medicine row. Market and Chestnut streets were choked with medicine makers. Among the largest in that city was the business of Dr. D. Jayne & Sons. His eight-story palace at 84 Chestnut attested to his dominance. Jayne’s success was undoubtedly due to the ever-present ads for his products. The name Jayne was known everywhere. You could hardly open a newspaper anywhere in the country without finding his name and his line of family medicines. These included an expectorant, a liniment, a hair tonic, a vermifuge, an ague medicine, and several others. One could buy other patent medicines at the Jayne store too. He was general agent for a number of other proprietors, probably wholesaling to smaller concerns. By 1851 he had opened a depot in Europe.

As competition in the medicine industry peaked in the 1840-1850s, would-be entrepreneurs were forced to be ever more creative in their pitches. New or exotic ideas were required to catch the public’s fancy. Things foreign held a mysterious appeal and so appeared: Tom’s Russian Liniment, Roback’s Scandinavian Remedies, Wheatley’s Spanish Pain Killer, Albright’s Columbian Syrup or Well’s German Linment, (More than twenty-five different German medicines are listed in this volume). Immigrant groups were targeted or exploited.

National pride manifested itself in the names proprietors chose. The word “American,” appears in fifty different listings in this book. Only the use of the word “Indian” numbered more with eighty-seven different pontil age medicines listings. Many of these proprietors claim to have procured the recipes from a famous Indian chief or gotten it after having lived amongst the Indians.

Public fascination with things electrical provided more marketing opportunities. The only limit was one’s imagination. There was an Electric Febrifuge and thirteen other electric medicines. Seventeen proprietors hawked magnetic remedies. The most popular, Trask’s Magnetic Ointment, was said to be magnetic because the components were passed through a magnetic field created by a galvanic battery. So-called scientists, doctors and professors foisted these remedies on the public.

Every disease imaginable and few as of yet unimagined were treatable. There were medicines for the stomach, liver or kidneys, for baldness, sore eyes or toothache, for deafness, rheumatism or cancer, for jaundice, diarrhea or nerves, for unspeakable diseases, virility or women’s troubles. The numbers and types of products offered closely match the death and disease statistics. The chart below shows the numbers of medicines listed in this volume, plotted against death statistics. The sample is small, but the pattern is clear. Diseases, which caused the greatest number of deaths also had the largest number of products to treat them.

Sufferers of common complaints such as worms, rheumatism or pain had a wide choice of products from which to choose. On the other hand if you were deaf, there were only a few medicines available. Of all the diseases, none was more feared than consumption and for good reason. Thousands upon thousands of people died annually from this disease. The symptoms of the common cold or flu might easily be mistaken for the beginning stages of tuberculosis. Products for these ailments make up the largest portion of listings in this book.