Patent Medicine-sponsored Almanacs

This summer I picked up a couple of antique almanacs. You know 0-- the Farmer’s Almanac type of thing. These were as common as dirt, apparently, which is why I could buy a couple of genuine articles well over a century old for a few measly bucks.

I though it’d be like the Farmer’s Almanac they sell in the stores around this time of year, with the astronomical facts interspersed with predictions about the weather, little bits of filler bearing odd and interesting facts, maybe a few recipes and articles of interest to farmers.

Boy, was I wrong.

These things are practically nothing but full-fledged advertisements for the patent medicine companies that sold them, thereby getting the public to basically pay for the advertising.

Item #1 – Hostetter’s Illustrated United States Almanac for 1888

This one’s got an illustration of a naked St. George slaying a Dragon (as Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters slay one’s ills?), followed by a Zodiac at the front, a list of festivals and movable feasts, a listing of eclipses, times of the seasons, and the rising and setting of stars. Every now and then there’s a half-page “humorous” engraving, with the bottom half telling the joke. The engraving is of a standard below Varney the Vampire. Here’s a typical joke:

That’s a real knee-slapper, that is.

The rest of this cheaply-printed volume is an uninterrupted commercial for Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters (it’s in bold print in the almanac), telling how it will cure damned near anything.

According to various internet sites I’ve found, the original formula (fdormulated by Jacob Hostetter of Lancaster PA in the first half of the 19th century, then put into large-scale production by his son David in 1853. They sold it in impressed glass bottles that are now collector’s items. The formula was originally 47% alcohol, mixed with various herbs and a healthy (unhealthy) dollop of sugar. Later, under pressure from the government, they reduced the alcohol content. A few years back they reconstructed the recipe. Here it is:

If you want to see one of Hostetter’s Almanacs from several years later, go here:

Okay, so the patent medicine turns out to be a sweet alcoholic mix of “medicinal” herbs of dubious value. Who’s surprised? But Dr. Hostetter’s Bitters are the image of health compared to the one hosting the other almanac:

Ayer’s American Almanac for 1893

I admit that I picked this one up because its cover has an engraving of Columbus Discovering America. It’s the 400th anniversary edition. But Ayer’s is lacking a lot of stuff. It’s got the Zodiac and the important dates and a month-by-month, but there are no humorous cartoons. Instead, it’s almost all ads for Ayer’s nostruums. But in this case we have not just one, but three different concoctions – Ayer’s Sarsaparilla, Ayer’s Pills and Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral. Between them, these claim to cure everything from Catarrh (basically anything producing a lot of mucous), Tuberculosis, Scrofula, Eczema, “Female Complaints”, and justr about anything else!

The Sarsaparilla appears to have been something like root beer/birch beer. A nice drink, but of negligible medicinal value.

As for Ayer’s Cathartic Pills, here’s what in them:

Probably not much of value there.

The real winner is Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral, which is urged as a remedy for all those childhood ills. What was in it?'s-Cherry-Pectoral-Bottle.html
Yup! Give your kids Opiates!
Ayer became the richest man making patent medicines, with a fortune of 20 million dollars. They named the town of Ayer, MA after him (although his business was in Lowell)

He ran for Congress in 1874, but was defeated, and died in an insane asylum four years later. There’s a moral in there somewhere, but damned if I can figure it out.
If you want to see an Ayer’s Almanac from a different year, look here:

PopSci has cornered the market. The latest one has a two-pager for deuteriumless water, light water actually being healthier than heavy water. As if what comes out of your tap is measurably heavy.

FTR, while I appreciate the gift subscription, I was always more of a PopMex guy.

The recipe for stomach bitters sounds like it would actually make a mighty good aperitif or digestif, if only they didn’t put so much damn water in it. I might mix up a batch if I knew where to buy Peruvian bark and gum kino.

heh to think all theyed have to do today is remove the narcotic element and put in the disclaimer " this product hasn’t been evaluated by the fda and dosent claim to cure any disease …".

Chinchona is the plant that quinine is derived from. If you can get of some of that, I guess it would be a reasonable subsitute :wink: