Skip to main content
Oskar Diethelm Library, Weill Cornell Medical College


Tarrant's Seltzer Aperient
Tarrant's Seltzer Aperient


Patent medicines attempted to draw people away from the advice of medical professionals through the use of visually attractive advertising cards. Their promises of painless cure-alls appealed to a population who for years suffered at the hands of those charged to heal them. While doctors struggled to identify the connections between mental illness and physical illness, patent medicine manufacturers advertised that to treat one would be to cure the other. The ingredients in these patent medicines were at times as harmful as the illness, but the process of taking them was far more pleasant and less painful than the alternative offered by doctors practicing “heroic medicine.” As medical theory progressed into the twentieth century, the American Medical Association fought against the use of patent medicines. This culminated in the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 requiring patent medicines to list their ingredients and be accurately labeled.  

Advertising cards created a world full of pleasant medical fixes, and patent medicine manufacturers learned how to sell these ideas in conjunction with their medicines. However, trade cards fell out of style at the turn of the century as mail-order catalog companies overtook the general stores that served as the cards’ origin point. Post card advertising grew in response to reduced postal regulations, also contributing to the decline of trade cards. The fact that so many of these cards have been preserved is directly attributable to their role as collectibles. Combined with a study of medical texts from the period, patent medicine advertising cards offer insight into the common ailments suffered by Americans, and help us understand the evolving and changeable nature of medicine in the nineteenth century.