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Rethinking British patent medicine culture in the first half of the twentieth century

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Publication date2020
Number of pages254
Awarding Institution
Thesis sponsors
  • ESRC
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


In 1909, the British Medical Association published an exposé of the patent medicine trade, Secret Remedies: What They Cost and What They Contain. It was soon followed by More Secret Remedies: What They Cost and What They Contain (1912) and the Report from the Select Committee on Patent Medicines (1914). Such publications were imbued with a sense of moralism and portrayed patent medicines as a kind of confidence trick, and even as a ‘weakness’ of the public. Publications like these have long shaped perspectives on patent medicine culture, to the extent that some historians still use language like ‘quack’ and ‘quackery’. However, this kind of language dismisses patent medicines and grossly oversimplifies consumers’ motivations, when, in actual fact, the trade was still worth between £20-28 million in 1937. This thesis takes a different approach to understand why patent medicines continued to be so popular in the first half of the twentieth century. First, it uses a ‘life stages’ approach that contextualises the manufacture, development, advertising, commercialisation, purchase, and usage of patent medicines. Second, it examines sources that reveal the consumer perspective, including oral history interviews, market research, Mass Observation reports, memoirs, and letters. Such sources are contextualised and examined against photographs, newspaper editorials, manufacturing records, advertisements, packaging, and government reports. This approach shows that a greater emphasis on consumers and their motivations can provide a more rounded understanding of the trade and of consumption. This thesis also identifies key themes within patent medicine culture that reveal insights into everyday life, medicine, health, domesticity, manufacturing, and consumerism in the first half of the twentieth century, such as hygiene, modernity, tradition, authority, expertise, faith, and trust.