From about 1870 until World War I, the medicine show was a major form of American popular entertainment, rivaling the traveling circus in popularity. The antecedents of the medicine show date back to the performances of European mountebanks—quack doctors who worked from small temporary stages. The harangues of these quacks were accompanied by performances from popular entertainers. Musicians, circus acts, jugglers, conjurers, and comedy-players became allies of these pitchmen.
By the early 1700s acrobats and street performers were all over the colonies. Quacks and peddlers, working alone or with a few assistants, soon allied themselves with these performers. Selling from the back of a wagon (the high pitch) or from a tripod set up on a street (the low pitch), the medicine men gathered a crowd, entertained it, and peddled fake panaceas that caused little or no harm. Their remedies and potions were generally harmless concoctions, usually herb compounds mixed with liniment, oil, alcohol, and sugar.
The increase both in the size and popularity of the medicine shows mirrored the phenomenal growth of the American patent medicine industry. As the United States industrialized after the Civil War, manufacturers promoted their products with saturation advertising in newspapers, as well as outdoor advertising on barns and other structures throughout the countryside. They moved from the individual pitch of the mountebank to a large scale Barnumesque extravaganza. Medicine shows appropriated the growing repertoire of American Popular Entertainments, adding trick shooters, banjo artists, and minstrelsy. The shows became advertising vehicles for manufacturers who craved a national market. The largest companies sent out their own shows to sell their line of products.
The medicine shows were most popular in small cities and towns where they were often the only live professional entertainment available to inhabitants from year to year. Charging little or no admission, the shows essentially offered free entertainment in order to sell medicinal cures and merchandise. As with minstrelsy and the circus, a parade down main street heralded the arrival of the show. Bills often changed nightly to encourage repeat business and performers had to be skilled in presenting a melange of songs, dances, and skits, as well as the traditional afterpiece, an extended sketch which involved violent clowning, unfeeling stereotypes (often a blackface character), and a sheeted ghost. Entertainment composed two-thirds of a two hour show, with the remainder devoted to pitches for soaps, tonics, and gadgets such as liver pads which contained a spot of red pepper and glue which when melted provided a sense of warmth and good health.
Ersatz doctors delivered the medical pitches, exalting the miraculous powers of the products. The prestige of German Universities provided the inspiration for German "Doctors," while the mystery of the Far East provided rural audiences with Oriental healers and remedies. The culture of the American Indian inspired the most famous of all shows. As Native Americans were pushed further West, confined to reservations, and, ultimately, eliminated from the life of the burgeoning nation, popular culture seized on them as a symbol of natural health and fitness. The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company sent out the biggest and most elaborate of the touring shows. Founded in 1881 (and having no connection with the Kickapoo Nation), the company promoted a full range of cures, including cough syrups, Indian Oils, and Worm Expellers, and, most famously, Kickapoo Indian Sagwa (an invented word) advertised as a cure to dyspepsia, rheumatism, and other ailments. A mixture of Iroquois, Sioux, Crees, and Pawnees, whose services were often leased from Indian agents on reservations, pitched and promoted these products from a traveling Indian village and presented standard Indian show fare, such as War Dances, Marriage Ceremonies, and Lectures, as well as, in some instances, Irish and blackface comedy.
By 1920 increasing modernization, the mobility brought about by the automobile, the rise of motion pictures, and, not least, the effects of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 had all combined to alter the nature of small town life and eliminate the lure and excitement of the medicine show. The 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act mandated harsher penalties for fake medicines. The form sputtered on into the 1950s and the last show abandoned the road in 1964. The descendants of the quacks and pitchmen live on in the purveyors of "healing" crystals, relaxation tapes, and purveyors of glandular extracts and dietary supplements that regularly appear at both street and country fairs.
Armstrong, David, and Elizabeth Metzger Armstrong. The Great American Medicine Show. New York, Prentice Hall, 1991.
McNamara, Brooks. Step Right Up. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1976.