Medicine shows were traveling horse and wagon teams which peddled "miracle cure" medications and other products between various entertainment acts. Their precise origins unknown, medicine shows were common in the 19th century United States, especially in the Old West era, (though they continued up to World War II). They are most commonly associated with "miracle elixirs" (sometimes referred to as snake oil), which, it was claimed, had the ability to cure any disease, smooth wrinkles, remove stains, prolong life or cure any number of common ailments. Entertainment often included a freak show, a flea circus, musical acts, magic tricks, jokes, or storytelling.
While showmen pitching miraculous cures have been around since classical times, the advent of mixed performance and medicine sales in western culture originated during the Dark Ages of Europe after circuses and theatres were banned and performers had only the marketplace or patrons for support.
Medicine shows flourished in the late 19th century, particularly in the Midwestern United States and the rural South. They had their origin in the patent medicine vendors who set up booths at local fairs in Colonial America. As early as 1773 laws were being passed against their excesses. Perhaps the most popular shows were produced by the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company, makers of a patent cure-all called Kickapoo Indian Sagwa.
As reliable commercial pharmaceuticals became produced on an industrial level in the early 20th century, the reputation of and market for home remedies began to dwindle, and medicine shows came to rely ever more on their entertainment value. But as America's population became less rural and more urbanized, the availability of other forms of entertainment, such as motion pictures and Vaudeville, and later radio, led to the gradual disappearance of the traveling medicine show. By the 1930s, relatively few such companies continued to tour throughout the United States. Even fewer shows endured the economic and social upheaval of the Great Depression and World War II. Those that survived into the 1950s found themselves competing against television, and came to be regarded as relics of an earlier, more innocent era. This novelty, far more than the availability of the remedies peddled, provided the chief support for the last of the traveling medicine shows.
The Hadacol Caravan
One of the most famous of the 20th century traveling shows was the Hadacol Caravan, sponsored by Louisiana State Senator Dudley J. LeBlanc and his LeBlanc Corporation, makers of the dubious patent medicine/vitamin tonic "Hadacol", known for both its alleged curative powers and its high alcohol content. The stage show, which ran throughout the Deep South in the 1940s with great publicity, featured a number of notable music acts and Hollywood celebrities, and was used to promote Hadacol (which was sold heavily during intermission and after the show). Admission to the show was paid in boxtops of the vitamin tonic, sold in stores throughout the southern United States. The Caravan came to a sudden halt in 1951, when the Hadacol enterprise fell apart in a financial scandal.
Chief Thundercloud and Peg Leg Sam
One of the last great medicine shows had its swan song in the summer of 1972, when the two-man show of Chief Thundercloud (pitchman Leo Kahdot, a Potawatomi from Oklahoma) and Peg Leg Sam (harmonicist/singer/comedian Arthur Jackson) played at a carnival in Pittsboro, NC. It was the last show of the year for them; Kahdot/Thundercloud died that winter.
'Doc' Scott’s Last Real Old Time Medicine Show
Perhaps the last of the medicine shows was run by Tommy Scott, who put on as many as three hundred shows per year until about 1990. As a teenager in the 1930s, Scott joined the 'Doc' Chambers Medicine Show, established by M.F. Chambers in the late 19th Century. Scott sang, played guitar, and performed ventriloquism and blackface acts, and pitched Chambers' Herb-O-Lac herbal laxative. When Chambers retired in the late 1930s, Scott took charge of the show, performing for many years with his wife, Mary, and sidekick, Gaines Blevins, known as "Old Bleb." Scott's daughter, Sandra, performed in the show as a singer, bass player, and acrobat, and beginning in the 1960s saw to the business end of the show. Herb-O-Lac eventually gave way to a mentholated skin liniment, which Scott dubbed Snake Oil. For decades, the show toured arenas and senior centers as 'Doc' Scott's Last Real Old Time Medicine Show. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the show also solicited donations for charitable organizations such as the Lions Club and Optimist Club.
Use in popular culture
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Several modern musical acts have named themselves after this old-time phenomenon, including Old Crow Medicine Show, Dr. West's Medicine Show and Junk Band, Blues, funk rock band "Moondog Medicine Show, Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show, and MV & EE Medicine Show. It also lent its name to The Dream Syndicate's album Medicine Show, to Big Audio Dynamite's song "Medicine Show," and The Band's "W.S. Walcott Medicine Show". Throughout 2010 and 2011, the hip hop artist Madlib released a 12-part mix series with the title "Madlib Medicine Show."
British comedy trio The Goodies performed a scene as part of "The Goodies Traveling Medicine Show" in an episode of their series entitled Hospital For Hire. The scene included a plant from the audience (Tim) being pulled from the audience to 'prove' that the mystery elixir cured all ailments.
On the album Everything You Know Is Wrong by the comedy troupe The Firesign Theatre, the recording's narrator plays a wire recording of a medicine show featuring a "Dr. Firesign" promoting "Chief Dancing Knockout's Pyramid Pushover Paste" and "Don Bruhaha's Inca Hell-Oil Tonic".
Magician Whit "Pop" Haydn models his magic shows after old-time medicine shows, complete with the selling of several products such as "Pop Haydn's Miracle Oil", which he claims to have received from "Placebo Indians."
- Anderson, Ann (2000) Snake Oil, Hustlers and Hambones: The American Medicine Show McFarland, Jefferson, NC, p. 1, ISBN 0-7864-0800-6
- Young, James Harvey (1961) "Chapter 12: Medicine Show" The Toadstool Millionaires: A social history of patent medicines in America before Federal regulation Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., OCLC 405144
- Connecticut passed an anti-mountebank law against those who ensnared people into buying "unwholesome and oftentimes dangerous drugs." Wright, Richardson Little (1927) Hawkers & Walkers of Early America J.B. Lippincott Co., Philadelphia, pp. 199-200, OCLC 1348701; reprinted by Arno Press in 1976, ISBN 0-405-08057-3
- McNamara, Brooks (Dec., 1971). "The Indian Medicine Show". Educational Theatre Journal (The Johns Hopkins University Press) 23 (4): 431–445. Retrieved May 9, 2013.
- Folklife Center News: Fall 2004 - Volume XXVI , Number 4 (American FolklifeCenter, The Library of Congress). Retrieved 2010-01-22.
- Oxford American - The Southern Magazine of Good Writing. Retrieved 2010-01-22.
- "Tommy Scott, Singer-Songwriter and Pitchman, Dies at 96," New York Times, 14 Oct. 2013. Retrieved 15 October 2013.