What flavor is nostrum?

Nostrum is a Latin word meaning “our own” or “our special formula.” When used in medicine, a nostrum refers to a patented medicine or cure-all with a secret formula. The exact ingredients and preparation methods of nostrums are often only known to the inventor or manufacturer. This air of mystery is part of what made nostrums popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.

What are some examples of famous nostrums?

Some of the most famous and popular nostrums in history include:

  • Dr. Miles’ Nervine – Advertised as a nerve tonic and sedative. It contained alcohol along with bromides and chloroform.
  • Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound – An herbal concoction aimed at “female complaints” including menstrual and menopausal issues. It was high in alcohol content.
  • Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root – Made from herbs, alcohol, and sugar. It claimed to cure kidney, liver, and bladder problems.
  • Dr. J. Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters – Contained up to 47% alcohol along with herbs and was marketed as a cure-all for stomach, liver, and kidney ailments.
  • Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People – Claimed to cure chlorosis (iron-deficiency anemia) and “nervous disorders.” Ingredients unknown.
  • Dr. McMunn’s Elixir of Opium – Mainly a combination of alcohol, opium, and benzaldehyde marketed as a treatment for “children’s diarrhoea.”
  • Hamlin Wizard Oil – Formula unknown but likely contained alcohol, camphor, ammonia, chloroform, and sassafras. Sold as pain relief and liniment.

These nostrums gained popularity through small medicine shows, magazines ads, celebrity endorsements, and word of mouth. Their actual medicinal qualities were often dubious at best.

What are some common ingredients found in nostrums?

Since the actual formulas were secret, the ingredients in nostrums varied greatly. However, some common components included:

  • Alcohol – Used both as a solvent and preservative. Some nostrums had extremely high alcohol content.
  • Opiates – Ingredients like morphine, opium powder, and codeine provided pain relief.
  • Laxatives – Senna, aloe, and rhubarb root as potent purgatives.
  • Cocaine – Used in products like coca wine, fluid extracts, and elixirs before being banned in the early 20th century.
  • Herbs – Ginseng, sarsaparilla, licorice root, dandelion, etc. Thought to balance “humors.”
  • Camphor and menthol – For analgesic and cooling effects.
  • Bromides and chloroform – Early sedatives used for “nervous disorders.”
  • Sugar and flavorings – To disguise taste of bitter herbal ingredients.

This combination of ingredients produced medicines with potent psychoactive and pharmacological effects. However, herb strength and drug dosages were completely inconsistent and unregulated.

What claims were made about nostrum benefits?

Nostrums were touted as cure-all medicines and panaceas able to treat nearly any condition. Some of the most common claims included:

  • Relieving pain – From headaches, arthritis, neuralgia, cramps, backaches, etc.
  • Aiding digestion – Settling upset stomachs, increasing appetite, curing indigestion.
  • Regulating menstruation – Restoring and normalizing “female complaints.”
  • Sedating nerves – Calming anxiety, insomnia, hysteria, and “melancholia.”
  • Increasing energy and vitality – Curing weakness and fatigue.
  • Cleansing the blood – Removing “impurities”, increasing circulation.
  • Beautifying skin and hair – Smoothing skin conditions and restoring luster.

These cure-all claims were usually unsupported by any scientific evidence or clinical trials. Instead, they relied on personal testimonials and promises of “secret formulas.”

What are some examples of nostrum advertising and slogans?

Nostrum makers relied heavily on advertising, endorsements, and slogans to promote their products. Some catchy examples include:

  • “What’s the Matter with Hannah? She took Wright’s Indian Vegetable Pills and She’s All Right Now.”
  • “Get the Genuine – Father John’s Medicine Cures Colds and All Throat and Lung Troubles.”
  • “For that Tired Feeling – Take Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound.”
  • “Look out for the Buffalo! Dr. Pierce’s Pleasing Pellets for Constipation.”
  • “Keep that Schoolgirl Complexion – Use Dr. Campbell’s Arsenic Wafers.”
  • “Have You Tried Magnetic Healing by Miles’ Nervine?”
  • “Health and Beauty Aid – Try Lash-Lure Eyelash Beautifier Nightly.”

Slogans focused on common customer complaints and desires – fatigue, constipation, female troubles, beauty, etc. Claims were outlandish and often dangerous.

How did the Pure Food and Drug Act impact nostrums?

The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act was the beginning of the end for nostrums in America. The law prohibited misbranded and adulterated medicines and foods and required ingredients labeling. Nostrums with undisclosed formulas, questionable contents, false claims, and unsafe ingredients were targeted. The 1906 act and subsequent amendments:

  • Banned harmful and addictive ingredients like opiates, cocaine, and excessive alcohol.
  • Halted false claims about treating specific diseases like tuberculosis, cancer, and diabetes.
  • Restricted unproven health claims on labels like “cure-all” and “panacea.”
  • Required proof of safety before sale and honest disclosure of ingredients.
  • Empowered regulators to analyze nostrum contents and prosecute violations.

This federal oversight sounded the death knell for shady nostrum purveyors. Those that remained shifted to patent medicine or over-the-counter drug production with approved labeling.

Some notorious nostrum peddlers like C.I. Hood of Hood’s Sarsaparilla fame fought the new standards and pushed back against “nostrum” as a negative term. But the public tide had turned against dubious cure-all preparations with undisclosed contents. Improved medical science also undermined dubious health assertions used to sell nostrums.


In summary, the flavor of historical nostrums was often literally and figuratively bitter. Potent herbals, drugs, and alcohol provided a harsh taste bud assault. Their medicinal benefits were just as unsavory – usually nonexistent and sometimes downright dangerous. Attempts to cure-all often harmed more than healed. While initially popular, nostrums faded with 20th century consumer protection and medical advances. Their distinctive flavor remains as a symbolic warning against miracle elixir claims and unregulated drug manufacturing.

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