SAMPLE MEDICINES

By Digger Odell

©2000 Digger Odell Publications

Does this sound familiar? In any large grocery store on the weekend you’ll find at the end of every aisle a smiling lady standing behind a table and electric frying pan dangling a paper cup and napkin in front of you offering you a tasty morsel of the latest product. If you’re hungry or if it looks palatable, you stand around with two or three other people trying not to look impolite while you eat with your hands. Or you might sneak a sample off the tray when she’s busy with someone else and hurriedly push your cart past the lady. You notice a slight twinge of guilt as you munch the sample but decide not to purchase it. If you later stop by the mall you notice that in order to get that package of white socks you came for, you must navigate your way through the makeup and jewelry counters. As you do so, you see some teenage girls getting samples of the latest eye shadow and lip-gloss, but while you turn around to look, a lady from behind sprays you with a sample of cologne. You smile politely and work your way through the maze of aisles in the most remote corner of the store to get you socks. On your way home you pick up the mail and find CDs from two new on-line companies promising a free 30-day trial. As you get of your car you pick up the latest edition of a newspaper left for free for you to sample.

Companies marketing in a highly competitive environment besiege us to try their product in hopes of getting a new customer. This idea is not new, but it has reached epic proportions in our fast paced society. I can image in ancient times market vendors offering samples of their goods to passerby’s. The idea still thrives in the marketplace today. I remember setting up at a flea market some years ago and watching the lady next to me sell back massagers. She would stop people walking by and give them a back massage. This in and of itself was enough to draw attention from others and give a sample of her product. I was surprised by how many she sold at $9.95 a piece. As a marketing technique providing samples works.

Foley's Honey and Tar Sample

The practice of distributing bottled samples in this country was not popular prior to the Civil War. I can’t think of any embossed sample bottles dating to that period. If there were any, they probably weren’t embossed as such and could have been distributed in generic bottles without embossing.

The medicine manufacturers used samples bottle but it was not widely adopted until very late in the 19th century. The increase in the use of samples bottles paralleled the huge increase in the number of products available and probably occurred for the same reasons that we see it happening today. The market was crowded and it was getting harder to get a new product noticed. I’d estimate by 1890 there were probably 10,000+ different proprietary medicines on the market. By 1912, there were 30,000.  Getting a market share in such conditions required getting your product before the public and that was getting more difficult and more expensive.

Collectors Like Sample Medicines with the Word Sample Embossed

Kodol Nerve Tonic

Kodol Nerve Tonic // 
Free Sample

Dr. Calvin's Croup Tincture

Sample 
Dr. Calvin's Croup Tincture

Fink's Magic Oil

Fink's Magic Oil Sample

Tiger Oil

Dr. Lesson's Tiger Oil

Compared to traditional forms of advertising such as newspapers, which might cost millions of dollars a week, samples were probably a cheap alternative. The customer would have a real sense of what the product was like unlike with print media. On the other hand, exaggerated claims were subject to greater scrutiny.  By hiring a few local boys you could canvas a town with your product. Around the turn of the century this practice was apparently wide-spread and quickly drew opposition. The following are articles that appeared in various Druggist Journals of the Day:

Pharmaceutical Era August 31, 1905

Pharmaceutical Era Dec. 28, 1905

Pharmaceutical Era
June 27, 1907

Against Free Samples

Cincinnati Aug. 29. – Agitation to prohibit the indiscriminate free distribution of medicines has been started by several local papers. Last Week a child gathered thirty pills, which had been left on house steps, and swallowed them. She was unconscious for several hours, and her condition is still critical. An ordinance will likely be presented in council on behalf of the agitators.

The indiscriminate scattering of samples of drugs about the streets should be put down with a firm hand. There are other, safer and more effective ways of bringing to the attention of the public the merits of these preparations. The idea that when people get something for nothing they will be induced to buy, is based upon false premises. A very small part of the samples, which are distributed, are tried by those into whose hand they fall….

Battle Creek, Mich. June 21 – The council of this city is considering an ordinance to prohibit the promiscuous distribution of drug and medicine samples to the doors of Battle Creek Homes. Sid Erwin, Secretary of the State Board of Registration in Pharmacy, who is a member of the council, opposes the ordinance, but proposes that all such distributions, be under the supervision of the city health officer. Several children are said to have recently been made ill by eating medicine samples picked up off doorsteps.

Pharmaceutical Era December 7, 1905

Pharmaceutical Era February 7, 1907

Druggist Circular
July 1911 

Against Medicine Samples

Complaints Come From Two Cities of the Indiscriminate Distribution

Richmond, VA., Dec. 2 – In almost every part of this city the law relating to the distribution of patent medicines and circulars is being violated by representatives of the medicines manufacturers. Packages of medicines and all sorts of nostrums are freely scattered throughout the residence portion of the city by men and boys. These medicines are put in the hands of children, despite a law which provides severe penalties for this offense. A fine and imprisonment may be the lot of the violators. A crusade is to be started against the distribution of these medicines, and many arrests will doubtless follow.

Plainville, Conn. Dec. 2 – A agitation has been started in this town to prevent men from sampling houses with patent medicines. Several cases have been reported where the samples have fallen into the hands of children, the latter partaking of them and becoming dangerously ill. In one case it was only the prompt services of a physician that saved the life of the little one.

The result of the present agitation will probably be the passage of an ordinance, which will enable the authorities to stop the distribution of medicine samples. The citizens are so indignant that they threaten to drive the men out of town who have been engaged in distributing the samples.

Against Sample Giving

Bill in Indiana Senate Designed to Protect Children

Indianapolis- Feb. 1 Senator Pearson, of Bedford, Lawrence County, has introduced in the State Senate a bill that is likely to be enacted into law, as there is no organized opposition to it. This bill absolutely prohibits, under pains and penalties, the free distribution of patent medicine samples from house to house. The purpose of this bill, as explained by its author, is to protect children, but it will prove of much wider scope, as it will save patent medicine monomaniacs from using this gratuitously distributed "dope, " and also protect legitimate patent medicine men who advertise their remedies through legitimate channels.

It is given out by Senator Pearson, who has newspaper clipping as authority, that during the past year a number of children have been poisoned by eating or drinking samples that were thrown over fences or placed on front porches. The bill provides a penalty of from $5 to $50, to which may be added a jail sentence not t exceed six months.

 

Looking hurriedly through our files for the past fifteen years, we find reference to the subject [distribution of samples] in the issues of the summarized below:

May 1907 ordinance passed at East Orange, NJ

May 1906 ordinance passed at Grand rapids, MI

September 1906 child killed in Ontario

June 1905 law wanted in Indiana

August 1905 ordinance in Houston TX

December 1905 Police ordered to stop distribution of a headache powder at Rochester NY.

June 1903 editorial on NY State Law

August 1902 Child made sick in Meridan, CT

November 1902 editorial on Ohio law

July 1901 editorial on Wisconsin Law

February 1900 quotations from Scranton and Harrisburg, PA papers

April 1896 children made sick Santa Rosa, CA wants ordinance

January 1896 complaints from Buffalo, NY

Indiscriminant distribution of samples did not end with the initial outbursts as evidenced by this article ten years later. 

Druggist Circular

January 1915

Regular and Sample Size Pepto-Magan Gude

Indiscriminate distribution of samples of drug preparations is a dangerous practice. In some states it is prohibited by law, but violations of the law are frequent occurrences. We read recently of an incident regarding this practice which occurred in a New England town that might have caused the death of a two and a half-year-old child. The danger of leaving samples of any sort in places where children and ignorant persons can get hold of them is apparent to all us, and unless samples can be delivered with descriptive literature by mail or otherwise, to responsible individuals, the practice should be refrained from. It is not only dangerous to distribute samples indiscriminately, but it is in the highest degree unprofitable. Pepto-Mangan Gude

Samples were not the only means used by companies to garner public attention.  There were some highly successful companies that to my knowledge never had a sample bottle.  They used a variety of other means to advertise.

It is interesting to consider the various means by which different companies sought the public’s attention. Some depended upon the newspapers. But newspaper advertising was an expensive option. Some companies who became major players in the medicine market rarely used newspapers. Consider two of the largest companies the H.H. Warner Company of Rochester, New York, makers of Warner’s Safe Kidney & Liver Cure and Andral S. Kilmer of Binghamton New York, makers of Dr. Kilmer’s Kidney Liver & Bladder Cure. Both used samples as a major means of getting their product out. Both companies also had advertising almanacs which may have been distributed with the samples or almanacs and samples often were simply picked up at the drug store. This probably made the druggists happy as it would bring people into the store where they might buy other goods as well.

Liver & Blood Syrup Sample

Dr. Thacher's Liver & Blood Syrup

Begg's Cherry Syrup Sample

This Begg's Sample was an unusually large bottle.

Dr. Miles Restorative Nervine

Dr. Miles Restorative Nervine // Cures All Nervous Disorders

Hood’s Sarsaparilla, a national best-seller utilized a wide-variety of printed media, including vast amounts of newspaper advertising, board games, fans, calendars and the like, but while there are sample bottles known for the company they aren’t common

Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, perhaps the best selling medicine for ladies complaints by the turn of the century, to my knowledge, never produced a sample bottle, nor do I think they produced many almanacs either. Trade cards were one of the media exploited by this company. In days when color printing was rare, trade cards were all the rage. All manner of people made scrapbooks with the colorful giveaways.

 

Not all small sized bottles were "Free" samples many companies produced the small sized bottles and sold them for a small-sized price. Hick’s Capudine, Ballard’s Snow Liniment, and Cranitonic for the Hair all offered the customer a very small quantity they identified as a "Trial Size." The well-known Watkins Company capitalized on this idea and embossed each full sized bottle with a line marked "Trial Mark. The customer upon purchasing their product could sample it and return it for a refund if not satisfied provided that the contents were not below the "Trial Mark."

Learn more about patent medicine bottles.  

Digger Odell's Medicine Price Guide  

Digger's Odell Pontil Medicine Encyclopedia       

Indian Bottles & Brands         ORDER YOUR COPY TODAY    

About 1910, S.B. Goff’s Cough Syrup was being sold in a 25 cent size. Part of the advertising wrapped around the bottle included a postcard which read, "Mail this card today for a free sample of Goff’s Herb Bitters." The patron was requested to give his address and that of a friend who might benefit to whom another bottle might be sent. A warning was noted: No sample would be sent unless the name of the dealer (from which the original purchase was made) was included. Apparently there were some unscrupulous consumers like the one described in a letter sent to the Druggist Circular which complained of a customer who requested a sample. The sample was sent and a week or so later, the customer complained the sample ""never arrived" and asked for another sample.

Bottles collectors have a wide choice of samples bottles to collect, but the largest number of samples bottles by far fall into the medicine and whiskey categories.  There are sample food bottles, whiskeys, gins, perfumes even sodas and beers.

Table of Sample Medicine Bottles and Rarity Ratings

Warner's Safe Kidney Liver Cure

Common

Dr. Kilmer's Swamp Root Kidney Liver and Bladder Cure

Common

Caldwell's Syrup Pepsin, Monticello, IL

Common

Atwoods Jaundice Bitters

Common

Holtzermann's Bitters

Scarce

Dr. King's New Discovery

Common

Lowe's Bitters

Scarce

Lash's Bitters

Common

Wistar's Balsam of Wild Cherry

Common

Healy & Bigelow Kickapoo Indian Oil Trial Bottle

Scarce

Walker's Tonic Free Sample

Scarce

One Minute Cough Cure E.C. Dewitt & Co.

Common

Ingall's Med. Co. Ingall's Throat and Lung Specific, Lowell MA.

Rare

Dr. Lesure's - Liniment - Keene N.H.

Common

Dr. Miles Restorative Nervine

Common

Shilo's Cure

Common

Dr. True's Elixir Established 1851, Dr. True & Co. Inc Auburn, Me.

Common

Dr. Miles New Heart Cure Free Sample

Common

Hood's Sarsaparilla

Scarce

Vicks Va-Tro-Nol

Common

Kemp's Balsam (all types)

Common

Foley's Honey & Tar Compound

Common

Pepto Mangan Gude

Scarce

Dr. JGB Seigert & Hijos Angostura Bitters

Common

Kodol Nerve Tonic Free Sample

Common

S.B. Goff's Indian Blood Purifer

Common

Shawnee Remedy Company

Rare

Fink's Magic Oil

Scarce

Renne's Magic Pain Killing Oil

Common

Tiger Oil

Rare

Herculean Oil 1/4 size.

Rare

Dr. Calvin's Croup Tincture

Rare

Hagan's Magnolia Balm

Scarce

Greene's Infallible Liniment

Scarce

Dr. Thacher's Liver and Blood Syrup

Common

Herbine

Common

Goff's Herb Bitters

Common

Ferro Quina Bitters

Scarce

Hostetter's Bitter's

Rare

Note samples with label and contents are rare.

Copyright 2000 Digger Odell Publications

 

  DIGGER'S HOME PAGE