Pure Drugs and Primary Sources: An Opportunity for Close Reading and Analysis

This is a guest post by Ariela Gomez, an intern with the education team at the Library of Congress as part of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) internship program.

Cold and flu season is here, bringing an opportunity to ponder the medicines we take when facing down common ailments like the sniffles.  Ask students what they take when they feel a cold coming on. What remedies do they use when they are in the midst of a cold?  Invariably, the conversation will turn to over-the-counter medicines.  Use this as a jumping off point to ask: How do we know our medicine is safe?  Students can explore primary sources to see how medicines were marketed in the nineteenth century and how Congress responded.

Gilbert & Parsons, Hygienic Whiskey–for Medical Use. Robertson, Seibert & Shearman, 1860

Many medications during the nineteenth century promised to cure terminal diseases. Older students might start by looking at this 1860 advertisement for whiskey  Some questions for exploration:

  • What surprises students about the ad?
  • What is the purpose of hygienic whiskey?
  • What claims does the advertisement make about the “hygienic whiskey”?
  • What questions would students have about using this product?

You can also share “Advice to Mothers,” which appeared in a newspaper in April 17, 1885 and proclaimed the benefits of Mrs. Wilson’s Soothing Syrup for children teething. Students might ask:

  • Why was it titled “Advice to Mothers?”
  • What was happening during this time period?
  • Was “Advice to Mothers” intended to be a news article or an advertisement? How could a reader tell the difference?

Many of these medications had testimonials that were intended to make them to become popular. Students might consider:

  • What symbolism did the advertisement use for these products?
  • What can they glean about the people who bought these products?

    Death’s laboratory – The patent medicine trust. Palatable poison for the people. E. W. Kimble, 1905

Next students can analyze the cover of a 1905 issue of Collier’s Weekly which suggests that patent medicines are poisoning the poor, and read this 1906 newspaper article about the death of a child from cough syrup.

Ask these questions to prompt close observation and deepen thinking:

  • What do you notice first about the Collier’s Weekly cover?
  • What message does the cover convey?
  • What do you think was the point of view of the creator of the Collier’s Weekly cover?
  • Why is the author’s message about the death of a child from cough syrup in “The Sun?”
  • Do students think the article or the cover is more effective at conveying the dangers of patent medicines?

Congress enacted a Pure Food and Drug Act on June 30, 1906, and President Theodore Roosevelt signed it into law. A response to the outcry against patent medicines and food, the act required medicine and food manufacturers to label the ingredients.  Students might deepen their learning by:

  • Reading further to learn what events caused Congress to pass the act.
  • Learning more about patent medicines.
  • Comparing and contrasting medications available now to medications from the nineteenth century.
  • Researching whether twenty-first century pharmaceuticals companies comply with the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Read this blog post for even more strategies for close reading of medical advertisements.

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