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Healing the Masses

In North Carolina, as in other states, the decades after the Civil War witnessed a dramatic rise in the number of patent medicines that were sold in general stores, by pitchmen from wagons, and through mail orders. Many of these concoctions promoted themselves as "surefired" cures for illnesses ranging from deadly cancers to the common cold. While the curative claims of these nostrums were usually bogus, their widespread promotion in newspapers and through colorful signage established mass-marketing strategies that continue in American advertising to this day.


Patent medicine generally categorizes the assorted tonics, pills, ointments, powders, and other compounds that in the 1800s and early 1900s were widely sold. Although many of the names and label designs of these dubious mixtures were trademarked, very few of the "medicines" were ever officially patented by the federal govenrment and had their ingredients and their alleged health benefits recorded in Washington, D.C.

Log Cabin Pharmacy

NCC Photo Archives


Introducing modern medicines to the backwoods of North Carolina and coaxing residents away from their homemade remedies were no easy tasks, especially for a woman in the early 1900s. Shown here is one of the first pharmacies in Henderson County. Located between Edneyville and Bat Cave, it was operated by Dorothy Sharpe, who is standing at the right in the adjacent photograph.

Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia

Folk Medicine in Southern Appalachia by Anthony Cavendar (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2003).        C615.1 C379f


"Folk Medicine," like patent medicine, should not be dismissed or categorized entirely as quackery, although there were many outlandish treatments that mountain folk used to combat diseases and relieve their aches and pains. Turpentine, kerosene, and vinegar served often as bases in homemade liniments and tonics. Among the many remedies documented in this book is one for headaches:

. . .believing that a headache was caused by an excessive flow of blood to the head, some residents tied a rag or bandanna (some believed it must be red) tightly around the head to curtail blood flow. More often than not, the rag was soaked in turpentine, camphor, or vinegar.


The Alumni Review, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, volume 23, number 1 (October 1934). C378 UTs 1934-35 c.2 v. 23


While various cancers, emphysema, and other deadly illnesses are well documented and firmly linked to tobacco, for over four centuries smoking and chewing the "weed" were widely regarded and promoted as beneficial to one's health. In the 1500s, Spanish and English doctors routinely prescribed the smoking of tobago (a Native American term) for patients who suffered respiratory problems, serving as an aid to "expunge" congested lungs. In the 1934 advertisement (right) smoking is touted as a provider of "well being" and reliable dispenser of "vim and energy." "I have also learned," professes writer Rex Beach in this testimonial, "that Camels do not interfere with healthy nerves."