There wasn’t much to celebrate in 1906, but hooray for this: Congress finally passed a law regulating the safety of food and medicine. The end of the era of quackery and dangerous cure-anything elixirs was surely at hand.
Except, it wasn’t at all. The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was all about enforcing truth in labeling, and didn’t even mention truth in advertising; it would be another twelve years before the new Federal Trade Commission started to crack down on that kind of fraud. In that interim, the fraudsters would exploit the public desire for “pure food” with new and even more dishonest claims in the newspapers, in magazines, and on billboards.
Santa Rosa was already familiar with food purity issues, thanks to a significant amount of newspaper coverage over a dust-up in 1905 about Grace Brothers beer, and whether it was truthfully “adulterated” with a harmless preservative. Both of the town’s papers gave front page coverage to passage of the new federal pure food laws – but afterwards, they also both featured ads that were clearly intended to deceive their readers, as did almost all other papers. (The Press Democrat ran more fraudulent ads than the rival Republican newspaper, but they likewise ran more display ads overall.)
“Pure” and “safe” became buzzwords to spice up advertising. This ad that appeared in the Republican was pushing a “spring medicine” to improve your skin – even though a contemporary formula reveals that it was a sickly-sweet syrup with alcohol and trace amounts of common herbal plants and roots. (The copy reads, “A SNAPSHOT of the condition of the blood is in every face. Pallor, undue ruddiness, pimples, blotches – all tell the tale. If your complexion is not ‘just so,’ most likely you need a spring medicine. We have the best made. Red Clover Compound, a tonic and blood resolvent. Family size, $1.00.”)
One of the worst abusers was Sunny Brook Whiskey, which ran a series of ads in newspapers like the Press Democrat suggesting that their liquor was USDA inspected and approved; some ads even displayed a man wearing an “Inspector” cap and holding bottles. That crossed the line for the government, but the company ignored warnings from the Dept. of Agriculture until Secretary James Wilson personally wrote to them and demanded they withdraw the ads. (CLICK to enlarge)
A special award for Most Contemptible Deception must go to the ad below from Peruna (or PE-RU-NA. as it was dubbed in most ads), which suggests that it could prevent tuberculosis, even cure “incipient” cases of TB. “Since it is well known that consumption begins with a common cold or catarrh, any medicine that can be relied upon to relieve these must be regarded as a preventive of consumption. Thousands of cases of incipient consumption, or chronic coughs, or settled colds, have reported Peruna as being a safe and reliable remedy for these ailments.” (Download this PDF for an entertaining overview of Peruna’s dodgy history.)
Peruna, which regularly had one of the largest ads to appear in the PD during this era, provided no indication of ingredients in the advert, although it was actually 28% alcohol (reduced to 18% after 1906) with the rest being colored water. Samuel Hopkins Adams’ 1905 muckraking article, “Peruna and the Bracers,” on this and other high-alcohol patent medicines, was widely read and often cited as one of the reasons the Pure Food Act finally passed in Congress.
(Obl. Believe-it-or-Not footnote: George W. Bush is just four degrees of separation from the boozy quack medicine. The mascot for the Southern Methodist University football team mascot is traditionally a black shetland pony called “Peruna,” so named in 1932 because it was supposed to be as “full of kick” as the phony cure-all. The current pony incarnation of Peruna led the school’s marching band at the Bush inaugural parade in 2001, and the George W. Bush Presidential Library will be built just a few steps from SMU’s Ford Stadium with its Peruna Plaza.)