William Helfand’s Pharmaceutical Trade Cards and the Changing Character of Drug Advertising

By Joseph Bishop, Princeton University, and the Librarys 2022 Audrey and William H. Helfand Fellow

Mr. Bishop completed his Fellowship residency in summer 2022 and will present his research by Zoom on November 8 at 4:00 (EST). To attend his talk, “Pharmaceutical Visions: How US Drug Companies and Ad Agencies Revamped Their Credibility by Marketing with Scientific Imagery,” register through the Academy’s Events page.

This spring I spent weeks immersed in the vast historical materials available at the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) Library. I had the honor of receiving the Audrey and William H. Helfand Fellowship to pursue a project that I believe would have interested Bill Helfand: an examination of the changes in medical advertising at the turn of the twentieth century. During his life, Helfand amassed an extensive collection of fascinating drug and medical memorabilia and visual art. Much of his collection and work illuminates the dynamic between drugmakers and the public during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Significant portions of Helfand’s collection are available at NYAM, and I took advantage of the richly colored and wide-ranging collection of patent medicine trade cards. NYAM also has mountains of pharmaceutical, medical, and allied trade journals and magazines brimming with pharmaceutical advertisements.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the American public saw the rise in large corporate pharmaceutical companies, national and corporate advertising, and federal drug regulation. An important question is what prompted the transformations in medical visual culture that helped to portray drug companies as scientific and research-oriented. To answer that question, I compare late-nineteenth-century patent medicine trade cards with medical ads in LadiesHome Journal in the 1920s. This comparison reveals a transition from entertainment and fantasy to a preoccupation with scientific progress and medical authority. My research at NYAM has led me to conclude that drug companies and ad agencies emphasized scientific and medical imagery to revamp their medical credibility and professional image amid national drug regulation and the public’s anger with the industry’s past association with patent medicine.

American patent medicine companies faced scrutiny for producing nostrums with cryptic contents and questionable efficacy during the first decade of the twentieth century. They depended on local advertisement imagery that reflected the nineteenth-century public’s anxieties and aspirations. Popularizations of science were created for various reasons—from entertainment to informing citizens—but they all served to increase scientific and medical awareness within the American public. Philadelphia-based ad agency N. W. Ayer’s accounts show that patent medicine was their most lucrative commodity category, carrying 26 percent of their total revenue in 1878, and their second-most lucrative commodity in 1900, carrying 15 percent. By 1879 in the US, more than 400 religious weeklies each needed a steady flow of advertising revenue to stay in business. Newspapers generated patent medicine business, and medical advertisements sustained newspapers. Nostrum manufacturers developed new marketing techniques, created novel distribution systems, pioneered brand-name products, became an economic link between urban and rural centers, and expanded markets.

Americans living through the last two decades of the nineteenth century saw an explosion of advertising trade cards. Retailers gave away these pocket-sized cards, often stuffed in product packaging as a bonus and easily collectible by customers. Patent medicine companies used these cards extensively, as they proved to be a very successful sales medium. Many people collected cards into albums and created scrapbooks, which children sometimes received as birthday or Christmas gifts.

Image 1:“Ayer’s Ague Cure Is Warranted to Cure All Malarial Disorders”
Dr. J. C. Ayer & Co. (Lowell, MA)
Produced ca. 1875–1895
From the William H. Helfand Collection of
Pharmaceutical Trade Cards at The New York Academy of Medicine
Chromolithograph, 6.1 x 11.6 cm

Trade cards such as Ayer’s Ague Cure (Image 1) evoke an aura of connection with nature and adaptation to the surrounding environment. The image in the bottom right corner depicts an alligator and a couple of frogs discussing Ayer’s Cure as if they used it to protect themselves from malaria. The ad implies that Ayer’s product helps one adapt to one’s environment just as well as the alligators and frogs adapt to theirs.

Image 2: “Cas-car-ria Is Worth Its Weight in Gold”
Product: Cas-car-ria
Produced ca. 1875–1895
From the William H. Helfand Collection of
Pharmaceutical Trade Cards at The New York Academy of Medicine
Chromolithograph, 5.8 x 7.8 cm

On the other hand, Cas-car-ria’s trade card (Image 2) depicts a young girl holding a switch and a dog together, fending off miniature demons labeled with ailments. Cas-car-ria’s ad evokes notions of animal protection and self-protection, implying that when patients take Cas-car-ria, they harness the animal within, unleashing the strength required to fight off external demons.

The explosion of ads promoting proprietary medicines and their incessant hyperbole and mistruths eventually provoked strong public reactions that demanded transparency and regulation. There were always calls to rein in the quackery, but the inundation of promotion drove the regulation of patent medicine to become a public priority.

Image 3: “What is in your medicine cabinet?”
Ladies’ Home Journal, February 1924, p. 144
Manufacturer: E. R. Squibb and Sons
From Ohio State University

Examining Ladies’ Home Journal during the 1920s illustrates these changes in advertising.  At this point, advertisements offered a different portrayal of scientific medicine and appealed to a more docile public regarding medical professionals. A Squibb pharmaceutical ad depicts a well-organized medicine cabinet (Image 3). The caption asks, “What is in your medicine cabinet? Are they products your physician would approve?” This approval seeking from medical authority plays into the new values of placing faith in the trained judgment of scientific and medical authority. 

Image 4: “Zonite: the World War Antiseptic”
Ladies’ Home Journal, March 1924, p. 192
Manufacturer: Zonite
From Ohio State University

Ads for Zonite (Image 4) ran images of scientists wearing lab coats and examining test tubes, drawing a scientific aura into its products. Zonite also associated its product with scientific discoveries, like the Carrel-Dakin fluid (i.e., diluted bleach), a critical antiseptic used in World War I.

Image 5: “Why the familiar cake of Yeast Foam is now eaten as well as used in bread”
Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1921, p. 49
Manufacturer: Northwestern Yeast Co. (Chicago, IL)
From the University of Michigan

The ad for “Yeast Foam” (Image 5) also appeals to scientific and medical authority, depicting a man wearing a medical coat and peering into a microscope. In the foreground are two circular illustrations of microscopic specimens—one containing germs and the other germ-free. The ad portrays a professional man immersed in scientific work, suggesting that the product has been carefully vetted through scientific scrutiny for quality assurance.

Similarly, the Fleischmann advertisement (Image 6) depicts two men in lab coats working at a table equipped with flasks, a beaker, a microscope, and other scientific instruments. The caption below the image states, “Messages of startling importance from the laboratory of the scientist.” Text within the ad notes how Fleischmann’s Yeast cures various diseases. In the case of skin diseases, the ad relies on a general sense of medical authority: “Many physicians and hospitals are prescribing Fleischmann’s Yeast for impurities of the skin. It has yielded remarkable results.”

Image 6: “Ten or fifteen years of life”
Ladies’ Home Journal, September 1921, p. 45
Manufacturer: The Fleischmann Company (New York, NY)
From the University of Michigan

The values of corporate ad agencies following the patent medicine era are not only a reaction to muckraking journalism and reform movements. The use of scientific medical imagery conveying authority and professional judgment was also largely about revamping the medical credibility of US drug companies and corporate ad agencies; they benefited handsomely during the patent medicine era but later needed to diminish their connections to these fraudulent products. Ad agencies traced the American public’s anxieties and aspirations as they shifted from loose whimsy about panaceas in the late nineteenth century to a reverence for qualified scientific and medical experts and institutions at the beginning of the twentieth century. By tracing this transition in medical imagery, we can glean how drug companies and ad agencies shaped products to elevate their professional clout.

Cataloging Roundup: New Library Acquisitions in the History of Medicine

By Miranda Schwartz, Cataloger

2022 is the 175th anniversary of the New York Academy of Medicine and its Library. We have an exciting slate of events planned for this year, including a special evening celebrating the library in the fall, so please keep an eye out in our blog and on our website for further news.

As I did in a May 2021 blog post, I’m sharing some of the newer titles we’ve acquired in the history of medicine.   

Scholarship in American medical history covers the colonial era up until the early 21st century, with a range of topics: illness, activism, epidemics, and cesarean sections.

Jim Downs, Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2015): Drawing from a plethora of sources, Downs has created a vivid account of illness, contagion, suffering, and death among Black soldiers and newly freed people during the Civil War and its aftermath.

Johanna Fernández, The Young Lords: A Radical History (University of North Carolina Press, 2020): In a thoroughly researched narrative, Fernández situates the Puerto Rican activist group the Young Lords in the context of 1960s U.S. political and cultural history. She links its mission and goals to current movements focusing on civil and social justice issues.

Jacqueline H. Wolf, Cesarean Section: An American History of Risk, Technology, and Consequence (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018): At a time when nearly one-third of American births are by cesarean section, it is crucial to understand this surgery, its purpose—and its dangers. Using oral histories and extensive research, Wolf has written an important account of this procedure and its now unquestioned place in current American birth practices.

David S. Jones, Rationalizing Epidemics: Meanings and Uses of American Indian Mortality Since 1600 (Harvard University Press, 2004): Through the lens of health disparities, Jones studies four distinct episodes of contagious disease in Native peoples in the United States from the 17th through the 19th centuries. He analyzes these episodes and disparities within a complex framework of economic and political considerations and offers new insight into their importance.


Books on epidemics and contagion are of course very timely in this third year of life with COVID-19.

Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (University of California Press, 2001): Shah begins with the history of an 1876 smallpox epidemic in San Francisco in which the city’s Chinese residents were unfairly blamed for the spread of the disease. His study of outbreaks and contagion continues into the 1950s, while continually paying particular attention to the physical space of Chinatown and its representation in the public eye.

Charles Vidich, Germs at Bay: Politics, Public Health, and American Quarantine (Praeger, 2021): As global lockdowns, pauses, and reopenings have made clear, fighting endemic disease takes many tools and strategies. In this timely book, Vidich studies how officials used quarantine throughout American history.


A cluster of books focuses on illness, diagnosis, and disability.

Elinor Cleghorn, Unwell Women: Misdiagnosis and Myth in a Man-made World (Dutton, 2021): Suffering from an undiagnosed autoimmune disorder but finding little clinical and medical support, Cleghorn undertook an investigation of how medicine has historically misdiagnosed women or left them to suffer the effects of illness without proper treatment. The result of her research is a fascinating look at women’s illnesses and misdiagnoses.

Emily K. Abel, Sick and Tired: An Intimate History of Fatigue (University of North Carolina Press, 2021): Abel studies fatigue, an often underdiagnosed syndrome of puzzling symptoms and outcomes. She analyzes both our culture’s disdain for those with fatigue and its admiration for productivity and devotion to work.

The Oxford Handbook of Disability History, edited by Michael Rembis, Catherine Kudlick, and Kim E. Nielsen (Oxford University Press, 2018): This handbook is a comprehensive, globe-spanning analysis of disability history written by 29 different experts.


Addictive substances are examined in these two titles, one reaching back to the 17th and 18th centuries and the other an of-the-moment examination of cigarette marketing.

Keith Wailoo, Pushing Cool: Big Tobacco, Racial Marketing, and the Untold Story of the Menthol Cigarette (University of Chicago Press, 2021): At the end of April, the FDA finally released its proposed rule to ban menthol cigarettes. Wailoo’s excellent history of menthol cigarettes in the United States and their prevalence among Black American smokers provides the background to understand this overdue action and the harmful nexus of targeted advertising, race, and tobacco.

Benjamin Breen, The Age of Intoxication: Origins of the Global Drug Trade (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019): Addictive substances are further studied in Breen’s account of opium, tobacco, sugar cane, coffee, and other substances. His insight is to look at these substances in a purely historical lens, back before they were categorized the way we see and purpose them now.


We added to our collection of biographies of figures in medicine with these titles.

David A. Johnson, Diploma Mills: The Rise and Fall of Dr. John Buchanan and the Eclectic Medical College of Pennsylvania (Kent State University Press, 2018): Johnson’s account of the reprobate Dr. John Buchanan and how he turned the Eclectic Medical College of Pennsylvania into an unseemly diploma mill is a fascinating story of a little-known piece of American medical history. Buchanan’s scheming and lying culminated in faking his death in a pretended drowning.

Howard Markel, The Secret of Life: Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, Francis Crick, and the Discovery of DNA’s Double Helix (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2021): Markel focuses on the personalities of the ambitious scientists who discovered the key to understanding DNA, paying particular attention to Rosalind Franklin, a female Jewish scientist at King’s College at a time when there were not many women in the field. Franklin’s key contributions to the discovery have often been overlooked in the focus on the male scientists, particularly Watson and Crick. Markel skillfully tells a complicated story with sensitivity and exactitude.

James L. Nolan Jr., Atomic Doctors: Conscience and Complicity at the Dawn of the Nuclear Age (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2020): After the death of Nolan’s father his mother gave him a box of materials about his paternal grandfather, a radiologist who had worked on the secretive Manhattan Project. During his search for more information about his grandfather and others on the project, Nolan ponders the ethics of medical professionals working on lethal weapons.

John M. Harris, Professionalizing Medicine: James Reeves and the Choices That Shaped American Health Care (McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2019): In this well-researched biography of West Virginia physician James Reeves, Harris details Reeves’s accomplishments in professionalizing 19th-century medicine and the field of public health in the United States: pressing for the arrest of doctors who practiced without licenses; working to establish the West Virginia Board of Health; and co-founding the American Public Health Association.


Black Surgeons and Surgery in America, editor Don K. Nakayama; principal contributors Peter J. Kernahan, Edward E. Cornwell (American College of Surgeons, 2021): Spanning American history from the colonial era to today, the book places numerous Black surgeons in their historical context while detailing their professional achievements. Particularly noteworthy is the chapter recounting the story of the 14 enslaved women Dr. J. Marion Sims operated on without anesthesia in his attempts to repair vaginal fistulas; the book is dedicated to Lucy, Betsey, Anarcha, and the 11 women whose names are unknown.


Finally, Flesh and Bones: The Art of Anatomy (Getty Research Institute, 2022) is a gorgeously illustrated new book about anatomy, edited by Monique Kornell. One can spend hours paging through its exceptional illustrations, looking at the detail of the images, and reading the accompanying scholarly essays that complement the visual wonder of the book.


I hope this roundup has inspired your interest in our ever-growing collections. For more books and other resources, the Library’s catalog can be explored here.

Chinese Opium Dens and the “Satellite Fiends of the Joints”

By Anne Garner, Curator, Rare Books and Manuscripts

Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) visits an opium den. Cinemax, 2014

Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) visits an opium den in The Knick. Cinemax, 2014

Dr. John Thackery passes through a number of dimly-lit opium dens in the heart of New York’s Chinatown during the course of The Knick. What were these dens really like—and who frequented them?

In the mid-19th century, the Chinatowns of America were largely isolated communities, populated by immigrants brought by labor brokers to work on the Central Pacific Railroad or other jobs. Many of these workers planned to return home after several years; there was little desire to assimilate. Scholar Gunther Barth has suggested that with the safety of a familiar culture came familiar vices.1

A large number of Chinese immigrants came from Canton, a region with a rich history of opium-smoking. As the Chinese presence spread east, opium dens cropped up in the Chinatowns of every major American city.

American Opium-Smokers Interior of a New York Opium Den/ Drawn by J.W. Alexander. [New York] : Harper and Brothers, Oct. 8, 1881. Courtesy of Images from the History of Medicine (NLM).

American Opium-Smokers Interior of a New York Opium Den/ Drawn by J.W. Alexander. [New York] : Harper and Brothers, Oct. 8, 1881. Courtesy of Images from the History of Medicine (NLM).

H. H. Kane wrote in 1882 that the first white American to smoke opium did so in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1868.2 Until then, opium smoking had been strictly confined to the areas of Chinese settlement. By 1875, the practice was widespread enough that San Francisco passed a law prohibiting opium dens. This ordinance was America’s first anti-narcotics law.

The San Francisco ordinance coincided with an increasing anxiety among whites in large urban areas that the low-paid Chinese would threaten wages and standards of living. At the time, the country was mired in a deep recession. The federal Page Act, passed the same year as the San Francisco law, similarly targeted Chinese immigrants, aiming to “end the danger of cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women.”3

Beginning with Virginia City the following year, local ordinances banning opium-smoking quickly passed across the U.S. These laws were largely ineffective. Law enforcement, focused on prosecuting Chinese dens known to attract white clientele, only drove whites deeper into Chinatown, and to smoke at higher rates.4

As opium use among whites increased, community leaders began to signal a concern about the morals of white women. Philadelphia missionary Frederic Poole cautioned that white women exposed by the Chinese to opium-smoking were at risk of “a life of degradation.”5 In 1883, Reverend John Liggins wrote of the dangers of the many New York City dens found in Mott and Pearl Streets (still the heart of Chinatown today), and quoted Kane that the habit, learned from the Chinese, contributed to “the downfall of innocent girls and the debasement of married women.”6 The same year, Allen S. Williams wrote in an early book on the opium-smoking habit about New York’s Chinatown dens:

Chinamen flit noiselessly by in ghostly, fluttering garments, and startle the Caucasian intruder by the very suddenness of their unsympathetic companionship…. the Chinese opium joint…is run for the sole purpose of pandering to a vicious taste whose indulgence is injurious to society.7

On the left coast, The Wasp, a popular San Francisco paper, sent two “reporters” to that city’s Chinatown in 1881, and published their findings:

In reeking holes ‘two stories’ underground, where the light of heaven and healthy atmosphere never penetrate, we found human beings living—if it may be called living, which is at best but an existence—as contentedly as rats in a sewer, whose habitation theirs so much resembles. The opium smokers’ resorts were among the first visited…a person once there, he may well desire to make himself oblivious of such surroundings and raise himself to a temporary heaven of his own, but how white men, and even white women, can bring themselves to descend to such filthy holes, where the reeking slime courses down the walls and the air is heavy with foetid odors, is a mystery to any well-regulated mind.8

The Wasp article offers an especially disturbing example of how many Americans implicated the Chinese as a group with standards and moral habits far inferior to those of whites. As early as the 1880s, opium dens run by the French and even white American-born women could be found in New York and Philadelphia, but the imagery continued to portray them as exclusively Chinese-owned and -operated. “It’s a poor town now-a-days that has not a Chinese laundry, and nearly every one of these has its lay-out [pipe plus accessories],” wrote one white traveler in 1883.9

Fig. 2—Smoker's Outfit. In Opium-Smoking in America and China.

Fig. 2—Smoker’s Outfit. In Opium-Smoking in America and China.

The framing of opium smoking as a Chinese problem continued as the century drew to a close. Temperance advocates and moral reformers identified opium smoking with indolence and passivity, qualities out of sync with a culture that emphasized hard work and a fast-paced industrial society. These kinds of characterizations became an important way to generate public revulsion for an immigrant group perceived to threaten both economic and social stability, and to gain traction for legislative action.10

The antagonisms toward the Chinese and attendant immigration restrictions resulted in a Chinese immigrant population that decreased by 1920 to less than half of what it was in 1890.11 The last opium den in New York was raided in 1957. Decades before, many of Chinatown’s dens, largely abandoned because of the rise of opium derivatives morphine and heroin, had all but disappeared.


1. Courtwright, David. Dark Paradise. Opiate Addiction in America before 1940. Cambridge: Harvard, 1982. 68.

2. Kane, H.H. Opium-Smoking in America and China. New York: G.P. Putnam’s, 1882. 1.

3. Peffer, George Anthony. Forbidden Familes: Emigration Experiences of Chinese Women Under the Page Law, 1875-1882. Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 6 No. 1, Fall, 1986.

4. Courtwright, 79.

5. Courtwright, 78.

6. Liggins, John. The Spread of Opium-Smoking in America. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1883. 20.

7. Williams, Allen Samuel. The Demon of the Orient and his Satellite Fiends of the Joints. New York: [the author], [1883]. 12.

8. The Chinese in California, 1850-1925.

9. Courtwright, 73.

10. Musto, David F. The American Disease. Origins of Narcotic Control. New Haven: Yale, 1973. 294-300.

11. Courtwright, 85.

More Music From Your Cash Register: American Pharmacy at the Turn of the Century

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

This is part of an intermittent series of blogs featuring advertisements from medical journals. You can find the entire series here.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 35, number 5, May 1917. Click to enlarge.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 35, number 5, May 1917. Click to enlarge.

By the late 1800s, a pharmacist (or druggist) stood at an interesting intersection in the marketplace. Both business person and medical professional, the pharmacist had to balance the responsibilities of dispensing medicine with the need to keep a business afloat.

This was in part due to changes in the field. As Gregory Higby explains in a Bulletin for the History of Chemistry article, “With most basic preparations now available from drug companies, anyone with enough courage and capital could open up a drugstore. The number of pharmacists grew enormously, and the quality of prescriptions dispensed declined accordingly.”1 Fortunately, this decline led to increased industry regulation.

The first pharmacy school in the United States, the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, opened in 1821, a year after the formation of the U.S. Pharmacopeia.2 By the end 1870s, state laws began regulating pharmacy throughout the Unites States, including state licensing exams for pharmacists.1 Not everyone attended a pharmacy school before taking the exam; a correspondence course option existed, as advertised in The Practical Druggist in 1917.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 35, number 2, February 1917.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 35, number 2, February 1917.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 22, number 2, August 1907. Click to enlarge.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 22, number 2, August 1907. Click to enlarge.

Drugs, too, came under closer scrutiny. In 1848, Congress passed the Drug Importation Act, which aimed to prevent the importation of tainted drugs from abroad. In 1906, Congress passed the Food and Drug Act, setting up the regulatory charge of the Food and Drug Administration and requiring the listing of alcohol and opiates on ingredient labels.3,4 In 1912, the Sherley Amendment prevented drug labels from including false health claims.3 Cocaine was available over-the-counter until 1916; heroin and other opiates could be sold legally in the United States until 1920.5,6

The pharmacy had “developed the warmth and hospitality of a country store,” with tobacco counters, home goods for sale, and, beginning in 1835, soda fountains.7 The soda fountain business turned pharmacy shops into social centers; as they grew in popularity, store owners added seats and tables, devoting large parts of the store to the soda fountain business (a trend that lasted into the 1960s).7

Enjoy these ads showing the wide variety of merchandise available to pharmacists, presented chronologically. Click on an ad to enlarge the image.

Ad published in Omaha Druggist, volume 7, number 1, January 1894.

Ad published in Omaha Druggist, volume 7, number 1, January 1894.

Ad published in Omaha Druggist, volume 7, number 4, April 1894.

Ads published in Omaha Druggist, volume 7, number 4, April 1894.

The cover of The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 3, number 1, January 1898.

The cover of The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 3, number 1, January 1898.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist  and Review of Reviews, volume 5, number 5, May 1899.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 5, number 5, May 1899.

Ad published in American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, volume 36, number 2, January 25, 1900.

Ad published in American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, volume 36, number 2, January 25, 1900.

Ad published in American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, volume 36, number 2, January 25, 1900.

Ads published in American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, volume 36, number 2, January 25, 1900.

Ad published in American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, volume 36, number 6, March 25, 1900.

Ad published on the cover of American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, volume 36, number 6, March 25, 1900.

Ad published in American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, volume 36, number 6, March 25, 1900.

Ad published in American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, volume 36, number 6, March 25, 1900.

Ad published in American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, volume 45, November 7, 1904.

Ad published in American Druggist and Pharmaceutical Record, volume 45, November 7, 1904.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist, volume 22, number 2, August 1907.

Ads published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 22, number 2, August 1907.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 22, number 4, October 1907.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 22, number 4, October 1907.

Ad published in The Spatula, November 1910.

Ad published in The Spatula, November 1910.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist, volume 35, number 1, January1917.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 35, number 1, January 1917.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 35, number 2, February 1917.

Ad published in The Practical Druggist and Review of Reviews, volume 35, number 2, February 1917.

Ad published in the Omaha Digest, volume 32, number 4, April 1919.

Ad published in Omaha Druggist, volume 32, number 4, April 1919.


1. Higby GJ. Chemistry and the 19th-century American pharmacist. Bull Hist Chem. 2003;29(1):9–17. Available at: http://www.scs.illinois.edu/~mainzv/HIST/bulletin_open_access/v28-1/v28-1%20p9-17.pdf. Accessed August 21, 2014.

2. pharmacy. Encycl Br. 2014. Available at: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/455192/pharmacy/35617/History-of-pharmacy. Accessed August 21, 2014.

3. Food and Drug Administration. A history of the FDA and drug regulation in the United States. 2006. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/downloads/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/UnderstandingOver-the-CounterMedicines/ucm093550.pdf. Accessed August 21, 2014.

4. Baker PM. Patent medicine: Cures & quacks. Available at: http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/pdf/Patent_Medicine.pdf. Accessed August 22, 2014.

5. Miller RJ. A brief history of cocaine. Salon. 2013. Available at: http://www.salon.com/2013/12/07/a_brief_history_of_cocaine/. Accessed August 27, 2014.

6. Narconon International. History of Heroin. Available at: http://www.narconon.org/drug-information/heroin-history.html. Accessed August 27, 2014.

7. Richardson LC, Richardson CG. The pill rollers: A book on apothecary antiques and drug store collectibles. Harrisonburg, Va.: Old Fort Press, 1992.

Item of the Month: A Compleat History of Drugs


By Lisa, O’Sullivan, Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health

In light of the recent National Drug Facts Week, it seems a good time to ask: what constitutes a drug? The answer has changed dramatically over time and place, as have the boundaries drawn between medicines, pharmaceuticals, and illicit drugs (an issue explored recently in a 20th-century context by Dr. David Herzberg’s lecture “The Other Drug War: Prescription Drug Abuse and Race in 20th Century America”).

Title page, Pomet, Compleat History of Drugs, 1725

Title page, Pomet, Compleat History of Drugs, 1725. Click to enlarge.

For the 17th-century French apothecary Pierre Pomet (1658-1699) the plant, animal, and mineral products considered drugs included a broad range of substances, from foodstuffs and materia medica with well-established uses in European pharmacopeias; to substances like tobacco, indigo, sugar, and opium, considered new and exotic by Europeans exposed to them through exploration and colonial expansion; and remedies from ground mummies to unicorn horns.

Such broadly ranging subject matter encompassing animals, spices, plants, dyestuffs, and the locales and methods of their production, makes Pierre Pomet’s an engrossing and appealing work. The volume featured here is the second (1725) edition of Pomet’s A Compleat History of Drugs in translation, first published in 1684 as Histoire Generale des Drogues and running to multiple editions over the course of the 18th century.

Pomet ran a well-regarded and fashionable apothecary store in Paris, and was appointed chief druggist to Louis XIV. His work drew its authority from his extensive travels in Europe, where he collected specimens, recipes, and knowledge. He comprehensively covered the new materials and medicines made accessible to European markets through Dutch, Portuguese, British, and Spanish expansion.

Indigo preparation, plate 35, Compleat History of Drugs

Indigo preparation, plate 35, Compleat History of Drugs. Click to enlarge

The volume emphasizes the exotic nature of these materials and their sources, demonstrating, as Sandra Sherman argues, the “cross-over” appeal of Enlightenment science to popular audiences, combining both utilitarian medical advice and vicarious access to stories and images of far-flung places and peoples.

Yet, one of the products most exotic to modern eyes, mummy, was in fact a well-established cure by the time Pomet was writing. The use of mummy was common in European medicine from the 12th century to at least the 17th century. In tracing the history of its use, Warren Dawson argues that the logic behind the use of ground powders ostensibly obtained from Egyptian mummies was based on the medical properties believed to be contained in natural bitumen (found in parts of the Middle East). The Persian word mumia was used to describe bitumen, an established component of ancient pharmacopeias. The resins used in embalming mummies had a bitumen-like appearance, and the word mumia began to be used to describe them and the bodies they preserved.

Mummy, plate 69,  Compleat History of Drugs

Mummy, plate 69, Compleat History of Drugs. Click to enlarge.

Over time, European apothecaries began using ground mummies instead of the (harder to source) natural bitumen and ascribing the efficacy of mumia for the treatment of wounds and tumors and numerous ailments, including gout and paralysis, to the properties of the dead body itself. The history of the use of human remains in medical treatments is a long and varied one, which continues to fascinate today.

You can find out more about Pomet and A Compleat History of Drugs online at Res Obscura and The Shelf, in  “The Exotic World of Pierre Pomet’s A Compleat History of Druggs  by Sandra Sherman, and Jordan Kellman’s  “Nature, networks, and expert testimony in the colonial Atlantic: The case of cochineal.”

Of Unicorns on Land and Sea

By Arlene Shaner, Acting Curator and Reference Librarian for Historical Collections

This spring the Cloisters, the branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that showcases the art and architecture of medieval Europe, is celebrating its 75th anniversary.  The most famous (and probably most beloved) items in the collection are the Unicorn Tapestries, the seven tapestries that tell the story of the hunt for this elusive animal.  A special exhibit about the unicorn is on display at the Cloisters through August 18th.

Unicorn horns and their purported medicinal uses are described in a variety of early books on drugs and natural history.  One of these, Pierre Pomet’s Histoire generale des drogues, traitant des plantes, des animaux, & des mineraux… (Paris, 1694) contains a detailed section on the unicorn, complete with an illustration of the five types of unicorns:

Pomet (1658-1699), a druggist to Louis XIV, also maintained an apothecary shop in Paris.  His Histoire was first translated into English in 1712, and appeared in a second edition in 1725.  The book contains detailed information about plant-based remedies, but also describes the compounding of various cures made from parts of exotic animals, metals, minerals, stones, and a variety of other substances.  In the case of the unicorn, Pomet admits almost immediately that what is sold by apothecaries as unicorn horn comes not from a unicorn at all, but from a fish, the narwhal, whose attributes he describes later in the animal section of the book. Of course, Pomet was wrong to describe the narwhal as a fish, as it is really a species of whale and whales are mammals.

The horns of unicorns and narwhals were believed to be effective as an antidote to all kinds of poisons and to cure various unspecified plagues and fevers.  Some people wore the horns as protective amulets, while others collected complete horns as curiosities for display.  While Pomet offers many details about both unicorns and narwhals, he hedges his bets regarding their efficacy, explaining that while some people believe in their worth, “I shall neither authorize nor contradict, having never had sufficient Experience of it.”