Do you have a headache? Heartburn? Are you giddy or suffering palpitations of the heart? Perhaps you feel a loss of appetite or are in low spirits. If you lived in Greenville in 1831, there was a “miraculous” cure for all of these ailments. It came in one bottle—no prescription plan required.
The Southern Patriot carried an advertisement for Hutchings’ Vegetable Dyspepsia Bitters that claimed to cure all of these ailments and more for a mere fifty cents. Skeptics were invited to peruse “certificates of remarkable cures while not one solitary case of failure has been reported.”
Greenville, like the rest of the country in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, was under the spell of patent medicines. People had been using patent medicine back in the early days of the Republic, when drugs imported from Europe were sold by postmasters, goldsmiths, grocers, and tailors.
As the population grew, epidemics of malaria, typhoid, and other diseases swept through communities. Without adequate medical legislation at the time, manufacturers could make outrageous claims about miraculous curative powers that could conquer every human ailment from headache to cancer, the common cold to consumption. They did not need to patent the formulas, only the bottle shape, promotional materials, and label information.
Dyspepsia Bitters were offered by one S. Swandale who was a merchant tailor and “dealer in fancy articles” in Greenville. Another, who branded his work with an illustration of a pharmacist’s mortar and pestle, was Charles Rabe. The Prussian native, who came to this country in 1839 at age 19, put down roots and hung a shingle in a Greenville store just one year later. At the Sign of the Golden Mortar, Rabe advertised himself and his wares in the Mountaineer.
Each time he took in a new shipment of medicines like Scarpa’s Acoustic Oil (the only cure for deafness!) or Dr. Spencer’s Vegetable Bitters, there was an announcement. Each time he moved his place of business, he took out an ad. In a time long before the connectivity of mobile phones, Rabe advertised his ability to be professionally consulted, any time of the day or night, and promised delivery of medicine the same. Rabe also advertised his achievements. After returning from a course of lectures on the practice of medicine and pharmacy, he pronounced himself Master of Pharmacy and Licentiate of the Medical College of South Carolina. In 1843, he became known as Dr. Rabe.
It is difficult to tell if he was mixing his own compounds or if he was relying on remedies from manufacturers elsewhere. Among his offerings: turkey opium, quinine, calomel, and “a variety of others warranted to be pure.” Liquor was the largest ingredient of most patent medicines, and the remedies were sometimes laced with cocaine, caffeine, opium, or morphine.
By 1856, Rabe had moved to California and Dr. M.B. Earle took over at the Sign of the Golden Mortar. A new soda fountain was advertised, touting the water as “one of the best and most pleasant, one of the healthiest drinks that can be used.”
It was not a moment too soon. Patent medicine started to lose its potency by the end of the century thanks to federal regulations. Meanwhile, American pharmacists like Earle created mineral waters with added medicinal herbs like birch bark, dandelion, and sarsaparilla. And let’s not forget the original Coca-Cola, originally made from coca leaves (yes, where cocaine is derived) and touted as a remedy for insomnia, headaches, and mental tiredness.
Just as Coca-Cola had to reconfigure its recipe to take out the dangerous ingredient in the early twentieth century, sodas of all stripes shifted from being medicinal elixirs to recreational beverages. One healthy benefit prevailed, though. People flocked to local soda fountains and ice cream saloons like Carpenter Brothers and the Pickwick. It’s hard to argue with the healing power of a conversation with good friends.