Acquisition Recognition

Acquisition Recognition

The Cure-All for Those of the Female Persuasion (Insert eye roll here).

Hello all! Katie the Curator here. We recently received another donation from an odd place! Early one morning we got a call from a gentleman who had been doing some work at a place on Main Street here is Cañon City. He had found some things under the floorboards! Among the items was an empty bottle of “Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription.” The bottle is clear with embossed lettering, including his initials, the location, and the title – no label. Needless to say, I was intrigued. What made this prescription his favorite?

Just like in school, with objects we try to answer the 5 W’s: Who, What, Where, When, Why (and sometimes How).

            Who: Dr. Ray Vaughn Pierce

            What: his “Favorite Prescription”

            Where: Brooklyn, New York

            When: late 1860s – 1880s

            Why: was it his favorite?

            How: did it end up in Cañon City?

Let’s begin. Pierce was born in Stark, New York, in 1840. He attended public schools, became a teacher, and then decided to become a doctor. In 1862 he graduated from Eclectic Medical College in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Eclectic medicine was a branch of American medicine that made use of botanical remedies, made popular in the latter half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th century. The term was coined by a botanist and Transylvania University professor who had studied American Indian use of medicinal plants…in other words: holistic medicine.

After graduating, Pierce practiced medicine in Pennsylvania and then moved to Buffalo, New York in 1867. Very soon after moving to Buffalo, Pierce began to manufacture a prescription which he called “Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription.” He followed with several other medicines, including “Smart Weed”, “Golden Medical Discovery”, and “Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets.” He was the master of mail order medicine and advertising. Between 1867 and 1880 his ventures took in almost half a million dollars per year ($500,000.00 in 1870 = $9,938,000.00 in 2020).[1]

His “Favorite Prescription” was advertised specifically towards the ailing “female organism.” He had a special knack for making it seem like all the health problems a woman faced could be solved by his tonic, bringing her back to perfect health for her husband and for motherhood. At some point, Pierce enlisted the help of Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, to do some advertising for him.[2]

When strong women became weak, Dr. Pierce had just the remedy. In keeping with the “eclectic” school of medicine he studied, he advertised for the replacement of “noxious medicines” with “more effective agents, derived exclusively from the vegetable kingdom.” Dr. Pierce said of his Favorite Prescription: “It makes weak women strong and sick women well. It cures nervousness, backache, headache, sleeplessness, mental anxiety, despondency and other maladies which are but the consequence of disease of the delicate womanly organism.”[3]

He wrote a book, promoting his concoctions, called “The People’s Common Sense Medical Advisor.” It included testimonials from patients whose claims of miracles convinced millions to buy the book. It sold more than 2 million copies by 1907.[4]

Pierce was questioned by doctors about the effectiveness of his tonics, prescriptions, and cure-alls. His medicines were notorious, many containing digitalis, opium, and alcohol until the mid-1890s. Which, at the time, was common in medicines. An 1893 druggist’s recipe book instructing pharmacists how to make Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription, lists the following ingredients:

  • Savin 150 grains. [dried tops of a juniper plant]
  • Cinchona 150 grains. [bark of trees belonging to the genus Cinchona]
  • Agaric 75 grains. [fungus]
  • Cinnamon 75 grains.
  • Water, enough to make a decoction of 8 fluid ounces.
  • Acacia 150 grains. [most likely the gum from the acacia tree]
  • Sugar 75 grains.
  • Tincture digitalis 1/2 fl. dram. [solution made of the foxglove plant]
  • Tincture opium 1/2 fl. dram. [solution made from the juice of the opium poppy]
  • Oil star anise 8 drops.
  • Alcohol 2 fl. ounces.[5]

A grain is equal to a seed of a cereal. A dram is one-tenth of a fluid ounce. Which means that each bottle was essentially 8 ounces of water and 2 ounces of alcohol with a tiny amount of additives.

The demand for his products led to the opening of the World’s Dispensary Building in Buffalo which manufactured, packaged, and shipped his medicines all over the globe. He built Pierce’s Palace Hotel in 1878 to house patients who came to New York seeking his curative skills. It burned down in 1881 and was immediately replaced with the Invalids Hotel and Surgical Institute. He incorporated his entire medical estate under the name World’s Dispensary Medical Association in 1883.[6]

In 1903, Ladies Home Journal published a report claiming that a lab analysis had determined that his Favorite Prescription of all-botanical ingredients included digitalis, opium, and alcohol. Which according to the above list of ingredients in the published and sold druggist’s book, it did![7]

Dr. Pierce sued the magazine claiming the expose was a lie and they were out to ruin his name. He insisted his prescription never contained those ingredients. So the Journal went back, analyzed hundreds of bottles of Favorite Prescription, and found no trace of opium, alcohol, or digitalis. The court ruled in favor of Dr. Pierce with the Journal paying him $16,000 dollars. Some researchers later claimed that Pierce simply stopped using those ingredients in Favorite Prescription after the Journal made its original analysis and before the magazine published the expose.[8] Who is to know for sure?

After this, it seems Dr. Pierce continued on with his concoctions. The company became “Pierce’s Proprietaries” and continued under the supervision of his son, Dr. Valentine Mott Pierce, until the late 1940s. Pierce spent his last years in his winter home in St. Vincent, Florida, where he passed away in 1914. He is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, NY. [9]

As a side note, he served as a New York State Senator from 1878-1879 and then as a Republican representative of New York in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1879-1880, when he resigned due to ill health.

Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription was advertised all over the world so it’s no surprise this bottle was found in Cañon City. From 1881 – 1920, I found at least 337 ads and testimonials in Fremont County newspapers alone. Below are some of his ads. Keep in mind the times in which these were written, but do feel free to have a good laugh and an exaggerated eye roll. I’ve got some doozies.

Glass bottle labeled “Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription”, ca. 1867-1880. Object ID: 2020.054.001; Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center collection

 

Pleasant Dreams
It does not lie in the painter’s fancy to imagine a prettier picture than that of a young girl, with lips luscious with the promise of love, half parted in the smiles of happy dreamland. The mind of happy maidenhood is a clear and polished mirror, which, when the wits go wandering into the ghostland of dreams, reflects the impressions of waking hours. If those impressions are pleasant and painless and happy, she will smile in her sleep. If the impressions are those of a suffering woman, tortured with the special ailments to which the feminine organism is liable, the picture is spoiled by the lines of suffering and despondency. Maladies of this nature unfit a woman and for capable motherhood. They incapacitate her to bear the burdens of life in any sphere of action. Household, marital and social duties alike are a burden to the woman who is constantly suffering from headaches, backaches, dragging sensations and weakening drains. Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription positively, completely, unfailingly cures troubles of this nature. It imparts health, strength, vigor to the distinctly womanly organs. It fits for carefree, healthy maidenhood, happy wifehood and capable motherhood.
“I have a little step-daughter who had St. Vitus’s Dance, which your medicine cured,” writes Mrs. T. F. Boze, of Ford, Dinwiddie Co., Va. “I spent about twenty dollars for doctor’s bills and medicine, and it did not do the child one cent’s worth of good. We commenced giving Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription and ‘Golden Medical Discovery’ and used three bottles of each, which cost only six dollars. Now the child is running around every where and is just as healthy as ever.”
The Canon City Record, Volume 21, Number 11, March 17, 1898.

 

Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription
Makes weak women strong and sick women well.
“I had female trouble for eight years,” writes Mrs. L. K. Dennis, of 828 East College St., Jacksonville, Ills. “Words cannot express what I suffered. I sought relief among the medical profession and found none. Friends urged me to try Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription. When I commenced taking the medicine I weighed ninety-five pounds. Now I weigh one hundred and fifty-six pounds – more than I ever weighed before. I was so bad I would lie from day to day and long for death to come and relieve my suffering. I had internal inflammation, a disagreeable drain, bearing down pain, and such distress every month but now I never have a pain – do all my own work and am a strong and healthy woman.”
Sick women are invited to consult Dr. Pierce by letter free. Correspondence private. Address Dr. R.V. Pierce, Buffalo, N.Y.
The Canon City Record, Volume 23, Number 12, March 22, 1900.

 

The Canon City Record, Volume 28, Number 28, July 13, 1905.

 

The Whitehorn News, Volume 6, Number 9, October 31, 1902.


[1] Jessica. “Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription, Buffalo, New York.” Old Main Artifacts, Illinois State University, 28 June 2018, https://oldmainartifacts.wordpress.com/2018/06/28/dr-pierces-favorite-prescription-buffalo-new-york/.

[2] Jessica, Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription.

[3] Nichols, Mike. “The Weaker Sex? “Ladies, Here’s to Your Health (Hic).” Hometown by Handlebar, 19 June 2018, https://hometownbyhandlebar.com/?p=2234#:~:text=Pierce’s%20Favorite%20Prescription%20is%20said,Dr.

[4] Jessica, Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription.

[5] Nichols, The Weaker Sex.

[6] “Nickell Collection of Dr. R.V. Pierce Medical Artifacts.” New York Heritage Digital Collections, New York Heritage, www.nyheritage.org/collections/nickell-collection-dr-rv-pierce-medical-artifacts. Accessed 12 Nov. 2020.

[7] Nichols, The Weaker Sex.

[8] Nichols, The Weaker Sex.

[9] Nickell Collection of Dr. R.V. Pierce.

One thought on “Acquisition Recognition

  1. Wow! I guess there’s nothing a little opium can’t solve. Yikes! Thanks for sharing all of these old ads. They are unbelievable!

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