If you pay much attention to U.S. politics, you have probably heard that some aspects of our current situation can be compared to the Gilded Age in the late 19th century. The most commonly noted similarities are social problems and increasing wealth disparity. Of course, those two issues are generally related.

The end of the Gilded Age was concurrent with the beginning of the Progressive Era. This started about 1890 and continued a couple of decades into the 20th century. The Progressive Era was defined as a period of social activism and reform, attempting to solve the problems created by the Gilded Age.

I was researching advertising, traveling medicine shows and the patent medicines of the late 19th century when I was reminded, again, how seemingly disparate things can be connected.

Plenty of movies and TV shows about the U.S. during that period include scenes with traveling medicine shows. Wagons filled with bottles of tonics arrive in small towns or rural areas and the conman in charge gathers a crowd. Whether you wanted or needed (or could afford) help with any of your aches and pains, at least you would be entertained. And as has always been the case with conmen, they knew what the people wanted to hear and to believe.

An example of one of the print ads. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

These traveling medicine shows were one form of advertising for the various “medications” available. Advertisements for tonics of all types were a huge source of income for newspapers and magazines. It may have been a different time, but they also knew the value of branding, Their names were as well-known to their customers as the name of your favorite restaurant or car.

But there was a problem. Those bottles of tonics didn’t have a list of ingredients, and not just because the manufacturers were protecting their super secret recipe. Some of the ingredients were toxic and/or addictive. Consider that oft-repeated story about a certain brand of soda actually including cocaine.

Enter the free press. The reform-minded journalists of the Progressive Era were known as muckrakers, and they were investigating many of the social ills of the time. They would disguise themselves and go undercover, infiltrating asylums and big business, or anywhere else they felt the truth could be discovered and shared.

Those investigative journals drove positive reform in many ways. One of the many investigations was into deaths that were linked with various tonics. In 1905, Collier’s magazine published the expose shown in the photo below.

Display advertisement for Collier’s magazine’s coverage of the patent medicine fraud, culminating in “The Great American Fraud”, 23 December 1905. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The Collier’s article alerted the public to the dangers of their medications, but didn’t stop the manufacturers from creating and selling those tonics.

Enter the 59th United States Congress. They passed, and President Theodore Roosevelt signed, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. This didn’t solve everything, but was a solid beginning. It was mostly about blocking adulterated and mislabeled foods and drugs and was limited to interstate commerce. The products were subject to inspection, but the fines levied on businesses were small. However, all the products that did not pass inspection were subject to seizure and destruction, and that cost a lot more than the fines. Also, although the convictions didn’t necessarily cost the businesses much in fines, all those convictions were published. Consumers may not have all seen the original article, but they probably saw at least one of the convictions published.

Opening ceremonies of the 59th United States Congress, 2nd session, 1906, with Speaker Joseph Cannon presiding. Photo via Wikimedia Commons. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c21291.

The Progressive Era. Consumers are put in danger by a product sold to them by businesses aware of the danger. The free press steps up to expose the dangers and the businesses. Congress steps up to protect consumers by placing regulations on the manufacture and sale of the product. Easy peasy.