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Patent Medicines

Gavitt's Drug ManufacturingMedical science greatly improved throughout the latter half of the 19th century. Many people, however, were still leery of physicians and avoided seeking their aid unless the case involved an emergency. Quarreling and factionalism among the medical sects of the day, such as the Eclectics, homeopaths and allopaths, added to the confusion of the ordinary Kansan. Many found it much simpler and cheaper to try to treat themselves with the plethora of "patent medicines" offered for sale.

Although many of these remedies were actually patented, nostrum developers found it easier, and much less costly, to simply register trademarks and label designs for bottles and packages and copyright printed matter. Manufacturing became big business. By 1900, there were 1,000,000 patents on the market. The only problem seemed to be to get people to pay 25 cents for pills that any druggist could compound for three cents.

Dr. William's Pink PillsLydia Pinkham became one of the most widely known women in America in the late 1800s. During her life she was a schoolteacher, temperance worker, and brewer of vegetable elixirs. She originally gave away her preparations, but with the panic of 1873, and the resulting poverty of the Pinkhams, she began accepting money for them. Few women were without Lydia Pinkham's vegetable compound, which was considered a positive cure for all "female complaints, all ovarian troubles, inflammation and ulceration, falling and displacements, and the consequent spinal weakness and is particularly adapted to the change of life." It would also dissolve and expel uterine tumors, remove the tendency toward fainting, destroy the craving for stimulants and cure bloating, headaches, insomnia, and depression.

Other cures included extract of celery and chamomile, considered valuable "for school children who suffer from nervous headaches caused by an overworked brain in their studies and for all classes of hard brain workers whose overtaxed nervous centers need repair and sedation." Some of the more promising products were Kennedy's Concentrated Aqueous Extract of Pinus Canadensis, Wizard Oil; Pleasant Purgative Pellets; Ginseng Root; Mexican Mustang Liniment; Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup; King's New Discovery; Shilo's Consumption Cure; Oil of Gladness, Hamlin's Wizard Oil; Hostetter's Stomach Bitters; Schenck's Sea-Weed Tonic; and Laird's Bloom of Youth.

In many instances their popularity was due to the high narcotic and alcohol content. Preparations such as Hostetter's Stomach Bitters were 44 percent alcohol, extremely popular in Prohibition Era Kansas.

Kansas had her own manufacturers. Many were small time such as Dr. C. L. Stocks of Bushong with his "One Day Cold Cure," and A. E. Kraum of Emporia with his "New Blood and True Dutch Cough and Cold Cure." New Blood was specially compounded to cure constipation, liver complaints, stomach trouble, indigestion, kidney diseases, pains in the back, rheumatism, catarrh of the stomach, swelling of the limbs, headache, heart disease, impure blood, and yellow jaundice. One Emporian testified that after a few doses she was able to rise from her sick bed of 11 and lead a normal life. Others manufactured and sold door to door on a large scale. One was A. B. Seelye of Abilene and another was William Wellington Gavitt of Topeka.

In 1867 W. W. Gavitt came to Topeka and organized a real estate and coal business. In 1869 he commenced his banking and loan career. He would become one of Topeka's wealthiest citizens. Although reputedly organized in 1869, the company's rise to prominence dates from its reorganization in 1889 by Harry E. Gavitt, William's son.

In the formative years of his company, Gavitt was the general agent for the Dr. Perkins Medical Company of Washington, D.C. Perkin's major product, hence Gavitt's, was Our Native Herbs, a combination of 21 roots and herbs, such as sassafras, liverwort, balmony, magnolia, rhubarb, prickly ash, poplar, spearmint, elecampane, sarsaparilla, mandrake, juniper, burdock, Canada balsam, boneset, wormwood, and yellow dock. It was guaranteed to cure: "Rheumatism, Dyspepsia, Sick and Nervous Headache, Nervousness, Constipation, Piles, Irregularity of the Bowels, Diarrhea, Catarrh, Fevers, General Debility, Sickness of the Stomach, Pain in the Side, Numbness of the Limbs, Cold Feet and Hands, Bad Taste in Mouth, Yellow Skin, Loss of Appetite, Worms, Stagnation of the Blood, Failure to Perspire Freely, Bad Circulation, Scrofula, Tetter, Erysipelas, Old Sores, Dropsy, Liver and Kidney Troubles, Heart Disease, Fits, all Female Complaints, Dark Circles Under the Eyes, Bearing Down Sensation, Pimples, Rough Skin, and Poison in the Blood."

By 1895, there were more than 5,000 users of the preparation in Topeka alone. Testimonials were printed from such people as a Topeka health officer, a fire department chief, judges, and the whole police department.

The company conducted major drives to acquire agents as the preparation was only sold door to door. Particular attention was paid to enlisting the support of G.A.R. leaders and ministers.

Gavitt later manufactured his own preparation called the System Regulator, with basically the same ingredients as the Native Herbs as well as Cough Balsam, Herbal Ointment, Lightning Pain Extractor, and Pile Driver for Piles.

Gavitt boasted testimonials from everyone—Arthur Capper to middleweight boxing champ Bob Fitsimmons—as well as most of the Ringling Brothers Circus.

The company eventually marketed more than 200 different types of flavorings, household articles, spices, soaps, toilet articles, perfumes, baking products, and even a parlor game "stockmarket," which is currently marketed by a major firm as "Pit." Carrington Gavitt, the youngest son sold the business in 1967.

Entry: Patent Medicines

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: December 2004

Date Modified: February 2011

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.