As anyone can imagine, there wasn’t much entertainment in rural America—hard work, sweat and toil, boredom, yes, but entertainment? “This was the only kind of entertainment the yokels ever got to see,” one huckster said of the traveling medicine shows that broke up the monotony. And wow, what they offered. Some of them included, not just a shouting, mesmerizing pitchman, but circus performers, brass bands, and animal acts. But the whole show was designed to sell the “miracle cure”. And they sold tons.
Who wouldn’t buy, when the promise was this elixir could cure anything from indigestion to tuberculosis. While there were individual shows, the biggest ones were sponsored by the patent medicine manufacturers. One of the biggest was Kickapoo Indian Medicine Company. It sold Kickapoo Indian Cough Syrup, and many others. But its best seller was Kickapoo Sagwa, which it claimed was made from “the secret recipes of native American medicine men.” Disbelievers said it was nothing more than a mix of aloe, herbs and stale beer, according to Reader Digest’s Discovering America’s Past. The real secret of the “cures” was that they usually contained a high percentage of alcoholic spirits—so even if it didn’t cure anything, you didn’t care because you still felt good!
In 1906 the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed by Congress to regulate medicines, which forced most of these “snake-oil salesmen” to pack it up and go home.