The story of Mr. Frank J. Cheney, proprietor of the Cheney Medicine Company illustrates the power that the patent medicine men had in the American business world. Not only was Mr. Cheney an extremely successful businessman who achieved amazing financial success selling proprietory medicines, but he also played an important role in the final chapter of the history of the patent medicine industry.

In March of 1905 the Lower House of the Massachusetts legislature engaged in debate upon a bill providing that every bottle of patent medicine sold in the state should bear a label stating its contents. The debate was at times dramatic - there being live testimony. One Representative Walker passed around a bottle of "Peruna" for House members to taste to decide whether it was a "cheap cocktail" as Dr. Harrington, Secretary of the State Board of Health claimed. But so powerful was Mr. Cheney that the papers did not print one word. How could it be that a man operating a patent medicine concerns hundreds of miles away could exercise such power?

The story begins some time in the early 1870’s when Mr. Frank J. Cheney obtained the rights as sole agent for Halls Catarrh Cure from one Dr. Henry S. Hall who had been using the formula as a regular prescription for his patients for a number of years. Cheney began advertising in 1871 with a single style format and he continued to do so without changing it. He poured much of his profit back into advertising. His ads were simple in style and ubiquitous. By the late 1890’s he was advertising in over sixteen thousand papers throughout the world.

Cheney employed a large number of people. He had representatives throughout the country who canvassed cities and states, house to house. To give some idea of the size of his operations, by the mid 1890’s he was sending two hundred thousand circulars daily at a cost of about $300.00 a day for postage (a letter did not cost 32 in those days).

Cheney had a good deal of business acumen. The wrapper for the Catarrh Cure stated "One hundred dollar reward for any case of catarrh that can’t be cured with Halls Catarrh Cure". One man took twenty-six bottles, then foolishly asked for his money back. The Company wrote in reply that they believed he hadn’t given their product a fair trial.


In the latter decades of the 19th century the larger proprietary medicine companies formed a national association primarily for the purpose of protecting their interests against impending legislation concerning their products. This group called itself by the name of The Proprietary Association of America. Members included well known names in the patent medicine business, such as: The C.I. Hood Company, (Hood’s Sarsaparilla);

J.C. Ayers, (Ayers Cherry Pectoral); R.V. Pierce, (Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription); A.S. Kilmer, (Dr. Kilmer’s Swamproot Kidney Liver Bladder Cure); H.H. Warner, (Warner’s Safe Kidney Liver Cure), and others including the Duffy’s Malt Whiskey Company, Peruna Company, Liquozone Company, The Lydia E. Pinkham Group of Lynn, Massachusetts, The Dr. Greene Nervura Company and many others. Frank J. Cheney was, for a period of years around the turn of the century, President of The Proprietary Association of America.

The Association maintained its own lawyer, permanent secretary, and office staff. It had agents in every state whose business it was watch sessions of the legislature and to report any legislation relating to the patent medicine industry.



The Association wielded its power through so called "Contracts of Silence". The Magic Red Clause read: "It is mutually agreed that this contract is void if any law is enacted by your State restricting or prohibiting the manufacture or sale of proprietary medicines."

Dr. Humphreys, one of the better known patent medicine men told the Association, "The twenty thousand newspapers of the United States make more money from advertising the proprietary medicines than do the proprietors of the medicines themselves….of their receipts, one-third to one-half goes for advertising."

Around 1899, Mr. Cheney estimated that the annual figure paid out to newspapers by the proprietary medicine companies exceeded twenty million dollars - more than one thousand dollars to each newspaper in the United States.

The medicine men’s methods were simple and effective. Mr. Cheney told his fellow members, "We have had a good deal of difficulty in the last few years with the different legislatures of the different States…..I believe I have a plan whereby we will have no difficulty whatever with these people. I’ve used it in my business for two years and know it is a practical thing….I, inside of the last two years, have made contracts with between fifteen and sixteen thousand newspapers, and never had but one man refuse to sign the contract, and by saying to him that I could not sign a contract without this clause in it, he readily signed it….this is what I have had in every contract I make: ‘It is hereby agreed that should your State, or the United States Government, pass any law that would interfere with or restrict the sale of proprietary medicines, this contract shall become void….’ in the State of Illinois a few years ago they wanted to assess me $300.00. I thought I had a better plan than this, so I wrote to about forty papers and merely said: ‘Please look at your contract with me and take note that if this law passes you and I must stop doing business, and my contracts cease.’ The next week every one of them had an article…." (Presumably against the tax).

Dr. Humphreys, one of the older members of the guild, said: "Will it not be now just as well to act on this, each and every one for himself instead of putting this on record?….I think the idea is a good one but really don’t think it had better go in our proceedings."

So the whole affair was kept secret from the public. Each and every time legislation was brought before a State legislature, the patent medicine companies would threaten the newspapers with significant losses of revenues if these bills were to become laws. And for a time this strategy worked marvelously and both legislation and the free press were suppressed.


The end for Mr. Cheney and the other patent medicine men began on October 7, 1905. On that date, Colliers Weekly began printing a series of articles by Samuel Hopkins Adams. This series contained: "A full explanation and exposure of patent medicine methods and the harm done to the public by this industry, founded mainly on fraud and poison. Results of the publicity given to these methods can be already seen in the steps recently taken by the National Government, some State Governments, and a few of the more reputable newspapers. The object of the series is to make the situation so familiar and thoroughly understood that there will be a speedy end to the worst aspects of the evil." (Note: The interested reader should read the reprinted version entitled The Great American Fraud.)

Adams’ articles ran for a series of months and had the desired effect and eventually resulted in the Federal Government passing the Food and Drug Act several years later. The American Medical Association reprinted Adams’ articles in booklet form to ensure the wide dissemination of the information contained in the articles. The American Medical Association picked up the cause and began a campaign against the patent medicine business and what they felt had been miscalled "medical freedom." This campaign was begun a few years before Adams’ articles in Collier’s appeared partly to disassociate themselves from the seemingly unethical practices of the patent medicine industry. Numerous articles appeared in The Journal of the American Medical Association that dealt with quackery or patent medicine fraud. These articles were reprinted in pamphlet form and widely distributed. The Association continued its indictment of the patent medicine industry in a three volume series of reprinted articles entitled Nostrums and Quackery

The attack on the patent medicine industry was also taken up by the United States Post Office Department through the agency of the mail fraud order. As well as by state and federal officials who began enforcing the recently enacted national and state pure food laws.

Although legal action was slow, hampered by the continued efforts of the Association, most of the patent medicine companies were either forced out of business or required to modify their extravagant claims. In many cases, the process was protracted over long periods of time and cases had to be prosecuted on an individual basis. It reportedly took the government twenty years to get the word "Liver" out of Carter’s Little Liver Pills, but in the long run, the patent medicine industry died from an overdose of government regulation.



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