Medicine shows were touring acts (traveling by truck, horse, or wagon teams) that peddled "miracle cure" patent medicines and other products between various entertainments. They developed from European mountebank shows and were common in the United States in the nineteenth century, especially in the Old West (though some continued until World War II). They usually promoted "miracle elixirs" (sometimes referred to as snake oil), which, it was claimed, had the ability to cure disease, smooth wrinkles, remove stains, prolong life or cure any number of common ailments. Most shows had their own patent medicine (these medicines were for the most part unpatented but took the name to sound official). Entertainments often included a freak show, a flea circus, musical acts, magic tricks, jokes, or storytelling. Each show was run by a man posing as a doctor who drew the crowd with a monologue. The entertainers, such as acrobats, musclemen, magicians, dancers, ventriloquists, exotic performers, and trick shots, kept the audience engaged until the salesman sold his medicine.
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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 in Europe after circuses and theatres were banned and performers had only the marketplace or patrons for support. Mountebanks traveled through small towns and large cities, selling miraculous elixirs by offering small street shows and miraculous cures. Itinerant peddlers of dubious medicines appeared in the American colonies before 1772, when legislation prohibiting their activities was enacted. Increasingly elaborate performances were developed to appeal to a largely rural population.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, traveling mountebanks gave way to more polished medicine shows, which availed themselves of a burgeoning patent medicine industry. At least 1,500 patent medicines were recorded by 1858, affording enterprising drifters a specific product to sell. These "medicines" seldom treated the specific symptoms of an illness, instead relying on stimulants or other drugs to produce a pleasurable effect. Alcohol, opium and cocaine were typical ingredients, and their addictive qualities provided an additional incentive for consumers to continue buying them, while their supposed medicinal benefit afforded a sufficient excuse. By 1900, the patent medicine industry was an $80 million business. Also contributing to the rise of the medicine show was the expansion of the advertising industry, through which shows were able to procure inexpensive posters, fliers, handbills, and other merchandising to promote their products. Other forms of advertising included the use of memorable jingles, sensational testimonials, and scare tactics.
Medicine shows combined various forms of popular entertainment with sales pitches from a self-proclaimed "doctor" who sold an astounding cure-all medicine or device. Shows played either outdoors from a wagon, platform or tent, or indoors in a theatre or opera hall. Admission was usually free or nominal. Pitchmen would make grandiose claims about their product's efficacy, sometimes planting testimonials in the audience. The speaker's goal was to create a need, or fear, then offer his unique medicine as the only cure. Alternating entertainment with sales pitches wore down the audience's resistance, until the crowd was saturated with a desire for the product. The show would continue to run as many days as possible, then move on to the next town. A show might remain in a given location between one night and six weeks, depending on how the troupe behaved itself.
Medicine shows often brought entertainment to rural communities that might not have any other sort of performances for years at a time. Whatever the quality of the medical advice, spectators got their money's worth from the free entertainment. Some shows followed circuits covering the entire United States, though most shows focused on the rural midwest and south, where the inhabitants were considered particularly gullible.
Hamlin's Wizard Oil Company and Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company
The two largest, most successful American medicine shows were Hamlin's Wizard Oil Company, founded in Chicago by John and Lysander Hamlin, and the Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company, founded in 1881 by Charles Bigelow and John Healey. Hamlin's Wizard Oil Company troupes travelled in specially designed wagons, with built-in organs and space for musical performers. Their appeal was clean, moral, musical entertainment for the whole family. Part of their advertising included songsters, or small booklets of song lyrics and Wizard Oil advertising. The Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company created traveling shows based around sham Indian presentational ceremonies, such as war dances and marriages. "Representatives" of the Kickapoo tribe translated for the Indians and sold Sagwa, the most famous patent medicine. The company also presented other forms of entertainment, such as vaudeville shows, trained dog acts, dances, and acrobatics.
As reliable commercial pharmaceuticals were 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, vaudeville and later radio, led to the gradual disappearance of the traveling medicine show. By the 1930s few such companies continued to tour in 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 with 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 promoted Hadacol, which was sold 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, North Carolina. It was the last show of the year for them; Kahdot died that winter. "Born For Hard Luck" a documentary film about Peg Leg Sam on Folkstreams.net, includes scenes from that last show.
"Doc" Scott’s Last Real Old Time Medicine Show
Perhaps the last of the medicine shows was run by Tommy Scott, who staged 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 nineteenth century. Scott sang, played guitar, performed ventriloquism and blackface acts, and pitched Chambers's 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 his sidekick, Gaines Blevins, known as "Old Bleb". Scott's daughter, Sandra, performed in the show as a singer, bass player, and acrobat, and from the 1960s onward managed 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 the Optimist Club.
In popular culture
The 1930 film The Medicine Man mixes comedy and melodrama with a medicine show coming into a small town.
In the 1932 Fleischer Studios cartoon Betty Boop, M.D., Betty, Bimbo and Koko are the owners of a traveling medicine show. In the 1933 Krazy Kat cartoon The Medicine Show, Krazy runs a medicine show where he performs some acts and sells bottled liquids which have a variety of uses.
The music video for the 1983 song "Say Say Say" has Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney play two snake oil salesmen selling a "miracle potion". They later donate the money to an orphanage.
The musical and film adaptations of Sweeney Todd portray a London-based 19th-century medicine show, including a song titled “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir,” which depicts a musical advertisement for a miracle cure to grow hair.
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, Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show and MV & EE Medicine Show. The name was also used in the titles of The Dream Syndicate's album Medicine Show, Big Audio Dynamite's song "Medicine Show", Moxy Früvous's song "The Incredible Medicine Show", and The Band's song "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".
Science fiction author Orson Scott Card titled his online sci-fi journal "The Intergalactic Medicine Show". In 1970 two original members of The Open Theater, Barbara Vann and James Barbosa, founded Medicine Show Theatre Ensemble also in New York.
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