James Cook Ayer

QUESTION:  What moniker was given to people who sold medicines of questionable effectiveness during the nineteenth century?
A)  Hacks
B)  Snake Oil Salesmen
C)  Quack Doctors
D)  Swindlers

James Cook Ayer was a New England man.  Born in Groton, Connecticut in 1818, he was sent to live with an uncle at the age of seven, after his father's death.  His uncle apprenticed him off to an apothecary (essentially a modern pharmacist), which led him on a medical career.  He graduated with a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, but saw greater potential in selling medicine than providing healthcare to his patients.  He borrowed money from his uncle, opened his own apothecary, and proceeded to invest heavily into advertising.  His plan worked, and he became one of the nation's biggest producers and distributors of medicine, offering numerous varieties for people suffering from numerous maladies, including:

Cherry pectoral was intended for use against 'coughs, colds, asthma, croup, laryngitis, bronchitis, whooping cough, and consumption.'
Cathartic pills helped with flatulency, dizziness, foul stomach, rheumatism, liver disorders and kidney complaints.
Ague cure removed the symptoms of fever, ague, and all malarial disorders.
Hair Vigor removed gray hair and increased hair growth.
And of course, Sarsaparilla.  Ayer's most popular product, and the advertisement displayed in the Toy Box here at the Treasure Tour, was 'a real blessing that purifies the blood, stimulates the vital functions, restores and preserves health, and infuses new life and vigor throughout the whole system.'  Sarsaparilla was intended to fight against jaundice, dyspepsia, pimples, boils, ringworm, female weaknesses, and 'lassitude and debility peculiar to the Spring.'

Lowell, Massachusetts is most famous as being an early center for textile manufacturing in the United States; however, it was also where the Ayer Company headquarters were.  150 people were employed by Ayer, who in one year produced 325,000 pounds of drugs, 220,000 gallons of spirits, and 400,000 pounds of sugar.  Of course, many of Ayer's drugs did, in fact, include drugs and sugar, too.  For example, the cherry pectoral contained morphine, and most of the medicines had alcohol in them.  Some of the medicines actually helped cure the ailments of their customers, but others served only to numb the pain.  Ayer became one of the wealthiest men of his time, and his ambitions went beyond medicine.  He ran for Congress in 1874, and did well enough to receive the Republican nomination but, when he lost the election, his defeat supposedly sent him into such a downward spiral emotionally that he was placed in an asylum for a time.  He was only sixty years old when he died in 1878, but his company lived on, well into the 1940's.

Tomorrow, we will talk a little bit more about sarsaparilla.  

ANSWER:  B)  Snake Oil Salesmen.  That's because Chinese immigrants who were brought to the United States to work on the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s used an oil made out of snakes to cure arthritic pains and other joint pain.  Medicine salespeople scoffed at this, and said only their own medications would help with ailments, giving snake oil a bad name.  Many people in Southeastern Asia still use snake oil as a way to remedy joint pains to this day.