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Meredith B. Linn
Assistant Professor and Director of Masters Studies, Bard Graduate Center

“Neither Snake Oils nor Miracle Cures: Interpreting Nineteenth-Century Proprietary Medicines”

Patent and proprietary medicines were immensely popular in the U.S. in the nineteenth century. These unregulated and relatively affordable mixtures promised astounding cures without a physician or hospital and appealed to people of nearly all backgrounds. Archaeologists frequently discover such bottles and jars at sites across the country. Interpreting how and why residents used them is challenging, however. Documentary records show a single product was often advertised as a cure for multiple illnesses, some of which we no longer recognize. Medical formularies and chemical analyses often identify ingredients that are no longer part of our own medical toolkits. Additionally, archaeologists have frequently begun their interpretations of these perplexing commodities with two problematic premises: first, that they were lesser alternatives to physicians’ prescriptions and second, that consumers used medicines as directed by advertisements or for recreational intoxication. These premises have led to explanations that overemphasize consumers’ class status and underemphasize their agency, cultural worldviews, and other aspects of their identities, such as gender. In contrast, this talk will re-examine contemporary assumptions about these medical mixtures by putting them back into the landscape of nineteenth-century medicine. It is part of a larger project to consider the interplay of culture, class, local context, and the material qualities of medicines in consumers’ health-related decisions. Using patent medicines found in association with Irish immigrant residences at the Five Points site in Manhattan as a case study, this talk will suggest that these medicines were neither snake oils nor miracle cures, but reasonable nineteenth-century medical options that consumers actively used in ways that resonated with their own worldviews and addressed their specific needs.

Tuesday, October 13, 12:15 pm

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A Zoom link will be circulated the morning of the talk.