Historical lecture: Great Patent Medicine Era

On Saturday, Nov. 14, at 2 p.m., Greenwich resident Bill Cameron will present a program on the Great Patent Medicine Era, complete with authentic examples from his personal bottle collection. Cameron will trace the history of patent medicine from the 1800s to the present day, illustrated with fascinating stories about the charlatans who became rich and famous while manufacturing these sometimes deadly elixirs.


Patent medicine promoters pioneered many advertising and sales techniques later used for other products. They were the original “Mad Men”. A patent medicine was a product that was promoted and sold as a medical cure, but that did not provide the promised relief. These products were not actually patented, which would have required an ingredients list and proof of effectiveness.

Patent medicine advertising often promoted the advantages of exotic ingredients, which the products seldom contained. Most included alcohol and some contained opium, morphine and cocaine – often ‘prescribed’ for colicky babies with sometimes tragic results.

Snake oil, an ingredient commonly claimed to be in many cure-alls, has become synonymous with a fake or falsely advertised product, and a ‘snake oil salesman’ is a person who can’t be trusted. Ironically, genuine snake oil is produced by a Chinese water snake and is rich in omega-3. Its use originated with Chinese workers on the transcontinental railroad line as a traditional treatment for inflammation from difficult manual labor.

Bill Cameron is a 1959 graduate of Greenwich High School and a navy veteran who served aboard the USS Little Rock (a guided missile cruiser) from 1960 to 1962. Cameron is the past president of the Greenwich Antique Bottle Collectors Club. He and his wife Mary Jane are lifelong residents of Cos Cob.

This program is open to all at no charge and will be held in the Meeting Room. For more information, email Local History Librarian Carl White at [email protected] or call 203-622-7948.

About Greenwich Library

The Greenwich Library system consists of the Main Library and its Byram Shubert and Cos Cob branches. The mission of Greenwich Library is to provide exceptional resources, programs and services that promote the joy of lifelong learning and discovery, and to offer a welcoming place for people to gather and share experiences. With 1,400 programs and events per year, the Library seeks to serve as the cultural and intellectual crossroads of the community. Greenwich Library has a total circulation of about 1.5 million, the highest reported in Connecticut. Greenwich Library was recently named a five-star library by Library Journal for the sixth time. The Main Library is located at 101 West Putnam Avenue in Greenwich. More information is available online at www.greenwichlibrary.org or by calling 203-622-7900.

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