Beyond snake oil: Quackery made for good art, not necessarily good medicine

They might not heal you, but they oftentimes made you forget your pain. And those snake oils crafted by shady doctors in the post-Civil War era were in packaging that makes for interesting artwork today.

Dr. Scott Dimond, curator at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art in Loretto, has collected that paper ephemera – including labels, almanacs, souvenirs from medicine shows and other giveaway items – for at least 20 years and will share it during the next “Conversation with the Curator” at the museum.

“The Very Picture of Health: Popular Art and Popular Medicine During the Golden Age of Quackery” is scheduled for noon Sept. 17 at the museum.

Reservations are required no later than Monday by calling 472-3920.

“It’s meant to be informative, but kind of funny and colorful,” Dimond said.

In the decades following the end of the Civil War, he said, Americans became overly preoccupied with health and well-being, as literacy was increasing significantly, transpor- tation was improving, and business and advertising were on the uptick.

“The idea that you could choose your own medicine really gained speed after the Civil War, and consumers had more choices,” he said.

The Industrial Revolution was rolling along, and factories were producing more and more packaging, and then a “small army of entrepreneurs, well-meaning physicians and outright con artists devised a host of dubious remedies for virtually every ill under the sun,” Dimond said.

They politely were called “patent medicine,” but were more commonly known as “snake oil,” he said. And, they became popular because of clever and appealing advertising, that often included “grave medical advice … slanted toward selling their junk, their whacky stuff and convince you that you had diseases you didn’t have. … Anything went.”

The U.S. National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Md., says one common practice was the medicine show in which entertainers would draw a crowd that would listen to “doctor” sales pitches.

“A great deal of ephemera is associated with the medicine show – tickets of admission, broadsides advertising the place and time of the show, forms for proprietors to book halls or hotels for their troupes, songsters for the audience to join in singing with the entertainers, advertising booklets, etc.” said the NLM website.

Most of the products they were touting simply were alcohol, cocaine or morphine, Dimond said.

One product, Lydia Pinkham’s vegetable compound, was quite popular, he said. It promised to cure a woman with “female difficulties” – from menstrual cramps to a prolapsed uterus – and it was 40 proof.

It was popular because a patient could drink at doctor’s orders as the temperance movement was taking hold and discouraging the consumption of alcohol, particularly by women.

Dimond said his presentation will include a lot of items from his personal collection. He also will touch on chroma photography that was used to create the paper goods that involved the “highest quality imagery.”

“A lot of people don’t appreciate that,” he said. “This was a time when color, detail, the imagery … was tour de force in technical quality.”

That imagery is what originally drew Dimond to buy the ephemera in antique shops over the years.

“There will be plenty of things to look at, as well as some ‘show-and-tell’ and opportunities for conversation,” he said. “As I envision it, they will be a pleasant way to get a little art history under your belt, whether you are an artist, a collector, a teacher, or anyone who has an appreciation for American visual culture.”

Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.