At first glance you may think this looks like a page about a root-beer. The kind we call “sasparilla.” There is certainly nothing about the advertisment below to make you think otherwise. It is, however, a patent-medicine advertisement for one of the most popular type of nostrums of the 19th century.
Sarsaparilla was the name given to extracts of Smilax vine. In the 16th century, sarsaparilla was touted in Europe as a cure for syphilis, although it failed, of course. It was re-introduced in the mid-1800’s, as a more general health tonic and blood purifier. It was, of course, the same vine used to make the root beer or soft drink known as sarsaparilla, which you may have never noticed is not spelled “sasparilla.”
This advertisement is for Bristol’s Sarsaparilla, the leading product of its type during the time-period. C.c. Bristol was one of the first to bring this product to market, in the 1840’s.
Eventually, Ayer’s Extract of Sarsaparilla, made by James Cook Ayer’s was able to overtake Bristol’s in sales, partly owing to the fact that Ayer’s took his product to the burgeoning West, and even invested in a railroad to transport his nostrum from Lowel, Massachusetts.
Sarsaparilla products continued to be sold through World War I. In the early 1900’s the Connecticut Medical Society analyzed nine of these products and found they contained very little actual Smilax extract and were mostly alcohol and various other substances. Some of the products contained potassium iodide, enough to perhaps be harmful if enough of the product was consumed.
Although the American Medical Association concluded that sarsaparilla had no medicinal value, they didn’t see any harm in it, either. Thus, it met the minimal standards of the new drug laws and was able to remain on the market into the 1950’s, gradually disappearing as newer more effective medicines were introduced.