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Oskar Diethelm Library, Weill Cornell Medical College

Patent Medicines and Trade Cards

Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound
Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound
1000.206.001

Compared to traditional advertising in newspapers, trade cards offered an innovative way to reach audiences. Newspapers printed only in black and white and at times restricted the products and manufacturers who could advertise with them. The colorful cards served as private advertisements, directed solely to the person holding the card. The imagery on the cards was usually gentle – drawings of young women or children playing; bouquets of flowers or a picturesque country house. As women often made the decisions about which medicines to buy for their families, medical advertisements sought to appeal directly to them. Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound advertising cards often featured portraits of Lydia Pinkham herself, advising that only a woman can understand women’s ills. The cards also invited letters to Mrs. Pinkham, who responded to them up until the time of her death in 1883. After, female employees wrote back to women inquiring about health concerns. 

The Genuine Dr. C. McLane's Liver Pills
The Genuine Dr. C. McLane's Liver Pills
1000.206.017

Cards often quoted recommendation letters written by cured patients. One such card reads “It affords me pleasure to assure that after using Dr. C. McLane’s Celebrated Liver Pills for more than twenty years in my family, that I regard them as superior to any I have ever used or have seen used” (The Genuine Dr. C. McLane’s Liver Pills, 1000.206.017). The writer of that letter was a Methodist Episcopal pastor, which lended even more credence to the validity of the medicine’s claims. No regulation existed yet for medical direct-to-consumer advertising like there is today. Advertisers could claim the support of the medical community in the use of these proprietary medicines: “There seems to be no difference of opinion in high medical authority, of the value of the phosphates, and no preparation has ever been offered to the public which seems to so happily meet the general want, as this” (Horsford’s Acid Phosphate, 1000.206.034).