How Pittsburgh ads — and their products — have changed since 1816

Written by Kaitlin O'Dougherty on .


stomach elixir

Many have heard the tall tales from older times that a simple elixir could cure any sickness, that a witch’s brew of sorts was the answer to any ailment. A look back through the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, a 19th-century newspaper, shows these claims were not just told — they were also sold.

Similar advertisements are as old as the city of Pittsburgh, which celebrates its bicentennial this year. Present-day ads still sell the efficacy of medicines and innovative-if-unproven treatments for hair or hearing loss, or neck, back and foot pains. But just how different were the products being sold in the pages of the 1816 Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette?

One of the newspaper’s first advertisements for elixirs was Doctor Chisholm’s Anti-bilious Pill — said to be “of a quality superior to anything of the kind ever offered as a general medicine in this country.” What seemed to make Doctor Chisholm qualified was that he spent a long period of time in the West-India islands and was therefore fit to prescribe such a medicine.

The ad claimed that a single dose of the pill could cure the bilious headache, an ailment caused by eating too much food. A single dose for a man was five pills and for a woman it was three. But its healing powers didn’t stop there. A single pill, if taken with a cup of flaxseed tea every hour, would relieve the common cold. For those struggling with asthma, a few pills taken with fennel or peppermint tea would relieve their symptoms.

Doctor Chisholm’s treatment would be comparable presently to taking Pepto-Bismol to relieve a food-induced stomach ache. Tea, the elixir’s partner in healing, is still used medicinally today and can relieve symptoms related to indigestion and headaches.

Anti-bilious pills crop copy

Another advertised cure was Hamilton’s Grand Restorative Drops, which were said to treat anything from nervous disorders to indigestion. The medicine would start working in the stomach and move on to revitalize other parts of the body. Today it seems several medicines would be required to match the abilities of this simple drop.

If a person’s problems were less severe and dealt with the skin, the Genuine Persian Lotion was a quick-fix. “So celebrated among the fashionable in Europe,” this cure-all could remove freckles, blemishes, sunburn and more. The effects were said to be “speedy and permanent.” Variations of this lotion are still for sale today.

Even if the sickness was a cold, cramps or asthma, the cures were advertised in the Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette. Take the Stomachic Elixir of Health, for example, which had supposedly treated thousands and cost $1.50. Today’s comparable treatment may come from the gut out — preventive rather than reactionary. It could include a healthier diet and cleansing the body with natural juices.

Hamilton’s Elixir for Coughs was the “certain remedy for whooping cough” as well as a normal cough and problems with asthma. Today whooping cough would be treated with hefty antibiotics.

A restorative powder for teeth and gums was also advertised, claiming cleaning, whitening and even strengthening powers. There still are herbal tooth and gum powders available today, so this may have actually been beneficial in the 1800s.

Maybe these magical medicines actually worked. But with little case-by-case evidence, it’s more likely their effectiveness will remain myths for future generations. After all, Doctor Chisholm is certainly out of practice.

— By Kaitlin O’Dougherty



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