The term patent-medicine, used to refer to the unregulated quack remedies of the 1800’s, such as those featured in traveling medicine shows, may be confusing. How could these medicines have been patented? Does this term refer to the United States Patent Office or any other patent-granting organization?
In reality, the term patent used in patent-medicine had nothing to do with the modern use of the word. Patent medicine did not begin in the United States, of course, it was a carry-over from something that had gone on for centuries in England. There, like in the U.S., these products were the most advertised products existing. Certain products in England were given a “patent of royal favor.” These products carried the crest of the king and enjoyed special favor as preferred royal treatments. The term patent-medicine was a hold-over from these times, although, of course, none of the medicines sold in the U.S. enjoyed any kingly favor.
Although the formulas of the medicines were not legally patented, the trademarks and logos were filed with the patent office. As author Ann Anderson points out in Snake Oil, Hustlers and Hambones: The American Medicine Show, it would not have been in the best interest of these quack remedy purveyors to actually patent their formulas, as that would have required them to reveal the actual ingredients. As well, such patents went into the public domain after 17 years. It is doubtful that the ingredients in old time nostrums remained the same for all the years they were sold, but the trademarks and logos, after being registered with the patent office, could be used to maintain a brand identity for the product.
The word patent really was more intended to mean the same thing as “proprietary.” In other words, the ingredients were secret. These secret medicines, both “cures” and “remedies” started becoming popular during the 17th to 18th centuries in Britain and her colonies, including North America. Although many of the secret ingredients were, in fact, similar to any other patent medicine, even more important to the makers was the branding, including not only the catchy names but the fancy and often colorful containers. A similar trend occurred in many European countries, though perhaps not on the scale seen in Britain and North America.