Some pitchmen sold watered down products, used “shills” in the audience to give false testimonials and encourage sales, or even ducked out of the area in the middle of the night in order to avoid complaints, refunds, or the strong arm of local law enforcement that could follow an exposition. Their aim may have sometimes been no more than the income – the “velvet” that the shows produced – but far more often the mission and goals of the traveling medicine man was as much to make people feel better as it was to make money. Sellers often manufactured their own medicines, using folk recipes they researched on their own, or recipes commonly found in the popular manuals of their time such as 1882’s The Complete Herbalist, and the King’s American Dispensatory published in 1898. The traveling show was often the only medical education or assistance that a community’s residents ever received, and mobile doctors and “circuit dentists” could not only a source of relief but a veritable lifesaver.
The English settlers brought to the world a long and respected tradition of medical herbalism, as well as bringing with them seeds for growing many of their favorite plant species from the “old world” to the new. That tradition was bolstered and amended by an infusion of herbal wisdom by the indigenous peoples of the Americas, with “Indian potions” proving far more helpful and far less destructive than the more “civilized” medical practices of the 18th Century. Those colonists who were financially well off could (unfortunately, as it were) afford the most “scientific” of treatments such as purging and blistering, first U.S. President George Washington might have survived to old age if not killed by the professional doctors who insisted on treating his condition by bleeding him, and the must esteemed modernist Dr. Benjamin Rush promoted dreadful doses of poisonous Calomel in most all of the “improved” medicinal preparations well-to-do folks paid so much silver for. Fortunately for the “common man” – the average working couple – they were mostly impoverished enough to still look to the fields, mountains and gardens for botanical relief for what ails them, and otherwise to barter for the help of local herb-wise midwives. Out in “the country,” when on occasions a local sheriff arrested the members of a traveling Medicine Show or forced them to move on, it seldom had anything to do with the quality or contents of the medicine being sold, but far more often was a response to what they considered to be the “lewd and immoral” nature of the show’s dance routines!
Homemade herbal preparations sometimes became known as “recipes” or “receipts” to those who used them, but were lambasted as “patent medicines” by the professionals and competing manufacturers who sought their restriction. In actuality, there were no patent medicines in the new country. Patent medicines were the patented and licensed products of Great Britain, resented by Americans for their high cost and debatable qualities, but what would become a campaign against herbalism would be characterized as a defense of the people against “the patent medicine threat.”
By the time of the first World War, all but a few of the traveling Medicine Shows had ceased traveling the circuits. A few continued for another decade, substituting automobiles and trailers for the iconic horses and medicine wagons. Their end came not through legislation and abolition so much as from being co-opted, subsumed and replaced by other mediums for sales and entertainment. The sales component was undermined not just by a shift in the public’s opinion of “primitive herbs” versus “modern cures,” but also by the rise of giant corporate producers and an increase in the prevalence of mail-order businesses. The very valuable role that Medicine Shows played in bringing entertainment, education and culture to the people of rural American was assumed first by the new medium of radio being fast adopted even in the most out of the way settlements, and then in the late 1940s by the introduction of television. One no longer had to walk any further than into their own living rooms to hear and eventually see musicians playing their favorite songs, Native Americans dressed up in tribal costume, lectures of interest, comedians and magicians peddling their jokes and tricks.
Medicine Shows continued into the automobile age, until they were killed off by the drug companies, the A.M.A., and the popularity of TV.There are a huge amount of websites, journals and other publications by catty licensed physicians still dedicated to “exposing quacks.” Under their definitions of quackery, we find a list of “errant and misleading” practices that includes not just remarkable treatments like ionic cleansing, colloidal silver and glucosomine supplements – but also such tried and respected fields as herbalism, acupuncture, aromatherapy, holistic dentistry, osteopathy, chiropractic and complimentary medicine. “Why use chemical drugs when nature in her wisdom and beneficence has provided in her great vegetable laboratories, relief for most of the more common and simple ills of mankind?”
–Joseph Meyer (1930s) In most cases Medicine Men were working to earn a living, yet their primary wish and purpose was to contribute to the quality of people’s lives, ease the burdens of their ills and restore them to function and fitness. Few traveling marketers can be dismissed as profiteers, and many were first and foremost devoted to their role as genuine and caring healers. Throughout its century of optimal prominence, the traveling Medicine Show was the number one threat to the monopoly of licensed health care and pharmaceutical drugs, with the Medicine Man the main counterirritant to the institutionalized prestige and superior status and position of the medical doctor. In the same way, herbs and herbalism today comprise an essential counterbalance to the corporate whitewashing of their often dangerous products, and are attacked precisely because of the challenge them might post to drug sales and profits. The corporate strategy at the time of this writing is to defame or belittle the efficacy of whole plant medicines while marketing products made from isolated or synthesized chemicals and chemical recombinations employing herbal and nature-associated marketing language. Recent legislation such as the GMP (the Orwellian coined “Good Manufacturing Practices”) continues the attack on herbal preparations made by the owners of small herbal businesses while favoring national and multinational corporate interests. The traveling Medicine Show, like the practice of herbalism itself and other forms of natural healing, have served as positive and creative forms of resistance against a life-crushing, de-naturing paradigm. They are, by any definition, truly “alternative.” The struggles to keep Medicine Shows and herbalism itself alive have fundamentally been contests over control of our own existence and health, impacting the most intimate relationship of all: that crucial relationship between ourselves and our bodies. These days, if we do a search for contemporary “Medicine Shows” on the internet we will turn up several pitchmen marketing historic Medicine Show acts as entertainment for conferences, festivals and schools. In most cases these showmen’s approach is to reinforce the unfortunate and inaccurate stereotype of the medicine seller as a charming but dishonest bunko artist, fleecing audiences of country rubes with his clever tricks and lies. More accurately, it is the corporations and their dutiful elected officials who are doing the worst fleecing of the public, while the icon of the Medicine Show represents democratic resistance to dominant cultural dictates, to deleterious synthetic drugs and an institutionalized health care system. It stands in truth as a herald of options and call to choice. The worst of the Medicine Show products were generally less dangerous than the well accepted drugs being massively prescribed to people in these times. These events for the common folk empowered them to take control of their own health and well being, the opposite of what current advertising seeks to do. We were told by the Medicine Show pitchmen that we had a choice as to how we live our lives, and that we could have an effect on how long and well we survive. “No man lives forever,” the Medicine Man might say, “and in due time age shall have its mortal say. But until that moment it is up to us to make the choices that can extend our stay on this bountiful earth and increase our healthy enjoyment of it.” We may or or may not purchase the proffered bottles of “Dr. Goode’s,” but we take home a feeling of individual empowerment, a bit of curious information and heart-lightening song – a tonic for the spirit that sinks in deep, and lasts long. ––––––––––––––––––– The above article is excerpted from a much longer article appearing in Plant Healer Magazine, Winter 2013… and in 2015 it will serve as the first chapter in Hardin’s book “The Traveling Medicine Show”. For updates and more articles by Wolf and Kiva, subscribe to the free Plant Healer Newsletter at: www.PlantHealer.org To subscribe to Plant Healer Magazine, go to www.PlantHealerMagazine.com (Feel free to RePost & Share this Article)
A modern medicine wagon, displaying its maker’s humor.