Patent Medicine Shows Brought Entertainment To Small Tows in America
Traveling Medicine Shows
One of the earliest forms of entertainment in small town America was the Patent Medicine Show. Hucksters promoting potions and lotions from the back of small wagons always provided an entertaining bit of shitck to gather a crowd before they launched into their pitch. Most of what they sold was harmless although it seldomed, if ever, delivered on the curative promises extolled by the pitchman.
The Patent Medicine Show History
From around the mid 1800’s to the early 1900’s there prevailed a unique and wonderful form of show business. The characters of this show were just as unique as was the show itself.
Medicine shows came about as a result of patent medicine companies. These companies would hire show people and pitchmen to sell their medicines in towns and villages throughout the US. The main purpose of the patent medicine show was to sell the crowd that gathered for the entertainment the patent medicine.
The premise was simple; offer a free show, which gathered the crowd. Entertain the crowd with acts such as singers, comic sketches, jugglers, acrobats, music, magic, ventriloquism and dancing. Once the crowd had been entertained the pitchman (often called Doctor or Professor), would be announced.
The pitchman would then pitch the medicine from the medicine company the patent medicine show represented. The average patent medicine show generally consisted of 2 to 5 people. They did everything in the show from entertaining to the bottling of the medicine. Some independent medicine shows (these shows did not represent a “patent” medicine company, but bottled their own concoction), made their medicine right out of the wagons!
Medicine shows generally traveled within a certain radius of the medicine company itself. Other patent medicine shows traveled within a given state or states which is why they were named Traveling Medicine Show. Some shows adopted Indian names after so-called Indian remedies. These shows were often referred to as a Traveling Indian Medicine Show.
The entertainment the traveling patent medicine show provided was often the only form of entertainment a town or village would have. In many cases the Patent Medicine Shows arrival was an huge event. Shops closed, school was let out and everyone got dressed up to go see the patent medicine show. The Patent Medicine Shows that had bad reputations were not welcome, so generally speaking most patent medicine shows were above board. The medicine that was sold however, often did little of what was claimed.
Here is a wonderful documentary narated by Roy Acuff who had his humble beginnings with Patent Medicine Shows