Nervine Syrup
Nervine Syrup
(Pharmacy Museum,
New Orleans)

What's an Old-Time Traveling Medicine Show?

In late nineteenth-century America, physicians were scarce and poorly educated. Treatments were based on the now-discredited theory of the four bodily humors that had to be kept in balance. These might include such treatments as bleeding (sometimes using live leeches), cold baths, blistering agents, and other remedies that were worse than the ailments that they were meant to treat!

Many people placed their faith in patent medicines, pitched by traveling salesmen who never failed to entertain the crowds before offering cure-alls. Modern advertising was born during this area, as patent medicine companies printed almanacs with useful information and humorous quotations mixed with plenty of advertising for mail-order herbal remedies. The newspapers and magazines of the day were crammed with ads for medicines and miracle-cure devices. Most of these medicines were at best harmless; many contained generous quantities of alcohol, opium, or cocaine, ensuring a quick feeling of well-being for first-time customers, followed by the possibility of habitual use.

Although advertising for mail-order business was lucrative, from the standpoint of the people, nothing could beat the traveling medicine show. These shows featured music, comedy, juggling, and overblown rhetoric mixed with testimonials and stunts to demonstrate cures. Admission was free, with the performers making a living from the sale of cure-alls.

The legacy of the traveling medicine show lives on. Besides surviving as the infomercial, it has inspired a number of bands to incorporate "medicine show" into their names. "Snake Oil" survives as a popular expression for a fraudulent pitch. Of course, it is also the framework for a dazzling mnemonics demonstration by Dr. Wilson! Don't fall victim to cataleptic neuroplexy!

Other performers, including Mark Osterman, have revived the medicine show. See photographs and stories of Mark Osterman's work on this site.

Dr. Wilson follows in the tradition of other famous mnemonists.

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Dr. Wilson's Memory Elixir Medicine Show Contact