Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery, was the first of many proprietary medicines manufactured under the name Dr. R. V. Pierce. Thanks to a heavy dose of advertising, these products occupied millions of shelves and medicine cabinets for almost 100 years from the late 1860’s up through the early 1960’s. According to the September 4, 1901 edition of an advertising trade magazine called “Printers Ink:”
When Dr. Pierce made his first advertising contract, more than a third of a century ago, he with the J. C. Ayer Company, had the proprietary field practically entirely to himself. Since then he has spent many millions of dollars to secure publicity for the merits of his proprietary remedies, and his business has increased from year to year until it is now second to no other “patent medicine” company.
It was also this commitment to advertising that transformed a local country doctor into a well respected national figure on several fronts. In addition to being one of the largest patent medicine manufacturers of his time, Pierce went on to become proprietor of a world renowned medical facility, widely read medical author, hotel owner and prominent New York State political figure, serving a term as state senator in 1877 and U. S. Congressman in 1879.
Born in upstate New York in 1840, a year later his family moved to Western Pennsylvania. According to a feature on Pierce written years later in the March 31, 1960 edition of his hometown newspaper, the Titusville (Pa) Herald, that’s where his story begins.
When R. V., whose full name was Ray Vaughn Pierce, was about one year old, the family moved to Plum Township, settling in present Chapmanville…Before reaching adulthood, young Ray taught school for awhile. Being interested in medicine, he then borrowed money from an old gentleman northwest of Diamond named George Smith. He used this loan to enter medical school and in 1862 he received his M. D. degree from the Eclectic Medical College, Cincinnati, Ohio.
The Titusville Herald went on to address the embryonic stage of Pierce’s “Golden Medical Discovery.”
Young Dr. Pierce began the practice of medicine in Titusville. He set up a small laboratory over the E. K. Thompson Drug Store, then located on Diamond Street…
Dr. Pierce experimented with various ingredients and came up with a remedy which he induced Mr. Thompson to put on his shelf to sell. After a few days a bottle was sold, and when Thompson reported this to Dr. Pierce, the latter gleefully exclaimed: My fortune is made!
It is said that the herbs and ingredients for this first preparation of the remedy was ground over the burrs of the old Grove gristmill, located between Diamond and Wallaceville.
For some time Dr. Pierce peddled his “Golden Medical Discovery” through the country and sold it from a wagon. He put up a number of kinds of proprietary medicines while in Titusville…
From the revenue derived from selling his tonics here, plus the fact that he borrowed $1,000, he departed Titusville in 1867 and moved to Buffalo, N. Y., where he more widely advertised his medicines.
According to a story in the July 20, 1922 edition of the Buffalo Commercial, his reason for leaving Buffalo had nothing to do with the goal of growing his patent medicine business.
If Dr. R. V. Pierce had been fond of horseback riding, the world would have lost one of its largest patent medicine factories.
Being one of the few physicians in that part of the country, Dr. Pierce was doing very well, but because of the aforementioned antipathy to riding a horse, which was his only means of transportation through the bushy trails that led from one community to another, Dr. Pierce moved to Buffalo.
We’ll probably never know how much of the above two stories is fact and how much is legend, but what we do know is that Pierce did arrive in Buffalo where he was first listed in the 1868 Buffalo city directory as an M. D. at 321 Main Street. That year his long time patent medicine business was apparently jump started, not with his “Golden Medical Discovery,” but with another proprietary medicine called “Dr. Sage’s Catarrh Remedy.” This advertisement for the remedy appeared in the June 27, 1868 edition of the Buffalo Commercial.
A WONDERFUL MAN – Dr Sage has discovered a perfect specific which never fails to cure catarrh in any stage or form. Dr. Sage & Co., of Buffalo, the proprietors offer a reward of $500 for a case of catarrh that they cannot cure. Dr. Sage’s remedy is the cheapest and best remedy ever offered to the public. Ask the druggist for Dr. Sage’s Remedy and take no other.
Up through November 7, 1868, advertisements for “Dr Sage’s Catarrh Remedy” appearing in the Buffalo Commercial named the Proprietor as Dr. Sage & Co., of Buffalo N. Y. Then, less than a week later, on November 11, 1868, an advertisement for “Dr. Sage’s Catarrh Remedy” in the same newspaper named Dr. R. V. Pierce, M. D., Buffalo N. Y., as the proprietor. So, it’s almost certain that Pierce obtained the rights to the remedy in early November, 1868.
Within several months, a July 30 1869 story in the Buffalo Morning Express announced that thanks to the catarrh remedy Pierce had just moved to new quarters and his business was booming.
Dr. R. V. PIERCE’S NEW AND ATTRACTIVE BUSINESS OFFICE, NO. 395 MAIN STREET. We noticed that at No. 395 Main Street (Arcade Block) the other day, the new and very tastefully fitted up store, laboratory and packing rooms of Dr. R. V. Pierce, the enterprising proprietor of Dr. Sage’s celebrated Catarrh Remedies…
The demand for the very valuable medicines of which Dr. Pierce is proprietor, has so largely and rapidly increased so as to necessitate this increase of his business facilities. His wholesale trade is very large and is constantly increasing, and his retail custom is also very large.
Not long after the move, in addition to the Dr. Sage remedy, Pierce began advertising his “Golden Medical Discovery.” According to a feature on his business published under the heading “Prominent Business Houses of Buffalo,” in the February 15, 1871 edition of the Buffalo Commercial.
His means were quite limited when he became the proprietor of Dr. Sage’s Catarrh Remedy, but so sanguine was he that its effectiveness would, if properly set before the public, bring it into general use, that he embarked in it, afterwards adding to his business the manufacture and sale of his Golden Medical Discovery, a good companion remedy for the other.
It’s almost certain that Pierce was advertising his preparations from the very beginning. The September 4, 1901 edition of “Printers Ink,” described his initial approach.
He began advertising his Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery for blood disorders in a small way, using his Dr. Pierce’s Memorandum and Account Book, distributing and mailing it to homes of the people in the surrounding country. Very soon there became a demand for this book, which had white pages for memoranda, and it was distributed in larger and larger territory.This book remains today (1901) in exactly the same form and shape as it was printed thirty-five years ago, and farmers and mechanics and clerks find it very useful for memoranda.
As early as the summer/fall of 1869, advertisements for Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery, sounding introductory in nature, began appearing in northeast and upper midwest newspapers.
The 1871 Buffalo Commercial feature went on to say that thanks to a heavy dose of advertising, the business continued to grow over the next three years.
He now advertises in over 2,000 papers in the United States alone, and liberally at that…
As a natural result of the widespread advertising which we have above alluded the business is constantly increasing, and not only do the remedies have great sale in the more thickly populated parts of the country, but they are distributed all along the Pacific coast and in the newly organized states. California alone contributes many thousands dollars worth of trade…His advertising bills for the past year will amount to upward of $65,000, and he proposes in the ensuing year to double that amount.
Growth led to another move within a year, this time to a four-story brick building at 133 Seneca Street. Now combining his medical practice and patent medicine business under one roof, the 1871 Buffalo Commercial feature was nice enough to give us a tour!
Let the reader take a walk through the place with us, and join us in the expression of surprise at the extent to which an establishment of but three years existence has grown.
THE BUSINESS OFFICE
is on the ground floor entrance from the street, and here general matters are handled by a competent force.
THE PACKING ROOM
is in the rear, and there all stamping, packing, labeling and shipping is done, the remedies being packed in different conveniently sized boxes of dozen, or gross, as the case may be, while the catarrh remedy is also, in the form of a powder, to which pure water is afterward to be added, packed in tin foil for shipment by mail.
IN THE BASEMENT
the bottling is done and more rapidly than the uninitiated would suppose it could be done, by means of what is known as the “Automatic Bottle Filler,” so contrived that a half dozen bottles can be filled at one time, and by the means of a “float”to only the capacity of the bottle; an expert can fill from forty to fifty bottles per minute by the aid of this contrivance. The bottles are made purposely for this establishment, and the title is blown on the glass. A steam engine pumps the water for washing the bottles, and also drives a mill stone for grinding the herbs and extracts used. The boilers furnish the steam for heating the building.
THE CONSULTATION ROOMS
Upon the second floor, entrance by a stairway that leads from the street, are Dr. PIERCE’S sanctum and rooms for consultation; for, be it known, that he is a regular practicing physician, and has many patients who come to him for treatment of chronic diseases.
THE UPPER FLOORS
are used for storeroom and for drying and preparing the medicated roots, herbs, etc., used in compounding the remedies, and it is unnecessary to say that although large quantities are used, the utmost nicety and uniformity is manifest in the mixture of the remedial agents.
THE ADVERTISING ROOM
In this room a Gordon press is kept in constant use.
It wasn’t long before the business apparently moved again and by 1873 their address was listed as 80 to 86 West Seneca Street.
That first year in new quarters, Pierce’s advertisement in Buffalo’s city directory now referred to his facility as the “World’s Dispensary.”
The ad certainly suggested that the medical consultation aspect of the business had grown considerably; a point further emphasized in a full page advertisement found in an 1876 publication associated with the dedication of Buffalo’s new City and Town Hall.
Established for the cure of all Chronic (or lingering) Diseases of either Sex, particularly those of a Delicate, Obscure, Complicated or Obstinate Character, also for the skillful performance of all Surgical Operations, and as a headquarters for Dr. Pierce’s Family Medicines, it is the largest establishment of its kind in the world. It is organized with an eminent corps of Physicians and Surgeons, each devoting his whole time and attention to some particular branch of practice, by which the greatest skill is attained, while Dr. R. V. Pierce, M. D., is the Physician and Surgeon in-chief, and is consulted in all important cases. Thousands of cases are annually treated, and each has the advantage of an educated and eminent Council of Physicians.
A May 9, 1875 feature on Pierce in the Buffalo Sunday Morning News actually included this sketch of a patient consultation room…
…and in case you’re interested, here’s a look at Dr. Pierce’s private office.
Thats not to say that the manufacturing aspect of the business had taken a back seat. In fact, the 1876 advertisement goes on to provide this description of their expanded menu of patent medicines, now referred to as “Dr. Pierce’s Family Medicines.”
If you would patronize medicines, scientifically prepared by a skilled physician and chemist – use Dr. Pierce’s Family Medicines. Golden Medical Discovery is nutritious, tonic, alterative, or blood cleansing and an unequalled cough remedy; Pleasant Purgative Pellets, scarcely larger than mustard seed, constitute an agreeable and reliable physic; Favorite Prescription – a remedy for debilitated females; Extract of Smart-Weed, a magical remedy for pain, bowel complaints and an unequalled liniment for both human and horse flesh; while his Dr. Sage’s Catarrh Remedy is known the world over as the greatest specific for Catarrh and “cold in head,” ever given to the public.
The Sunday Morning News feature included this view of their packing and shipping department.
As if manufacturing and consulting weren’t enough, in 1874, a June 27th item in the Springville (N. Y.) Journal announced that Pierce was getting ready to publish a book entitled “The Common Sense Medical Advisor.”
The Common Sense Medical Advisor, in Plain English for All People, or Medicine Simplified, is the comprehensive and expressive title of a forthcoming work of from seven to nine hundred pages, bound in cloth, from the pen of Dr. R. V. Pierce of the World’s Dispensary, Buffalo N. Y. Price, $1.50, post paid, to any address within the United States…
The book will be illustrated with numerous original wood engravings, will contain a fine steel portrait and autograph of the author, and altogether will be the most comprehensive, plainly written, and practical medical advisor for both young and old, male and female, single and married, ever published.
First appearing in the spring of 1875, the book included over 900 pages and 280 illustrations and quickly became the center piece of his advertising effort. In just over three years, a December 23, 1877 item in the The Buffalo Sunday Morning News announced he had sold over 100,000 copies.
Remarkably, Pierce did most, if not all, the printing, of both the book and his other advertising materials in house. A September 3, 1876 item in the Buffalo Sunday Morning News mentioned that by then his printing facilities included eight printing presses and 50 employees. The story went on to say:
…5,500 reams book paper and 1,000 reams print and other paper being consumed annually; 600 pounds of printing ink used monthly. How’s that for a medical man?
The sale of his book, coupled with his passion for advertising was drawing people to the “World’s Dispensary,” from all over the country, such that by 1876, Pierce was planning a new hotel in Buffalo to accommodate them.
According to the advertisement in the 1876 City Hall dedication:
…We understand that it is the intention of Dr. Pierce to erect a hotel at the cost of at least two hundred thousand dollars, where those who come to enjoy the benefit of his treatment may find all desired accommodations under one roof, instead of being scattered over the city, as at present.
Designed to accommodate non-patients as well, it was called the “Invalids and Tourists Hotel.” Built in what the newspapers called the “Modern French” style of architecture, the building encompassed the entire block bounded by Prospect Avenue, Connecticut Street, Fargo Avenue and Peter Avenue.
Here’s the May 1, 1878 New York Times story that covered its opening. (As you read the story, note that, not unlike today, the construction cost estimated at $200,000 in 1876 had ballooned to $500,000.)
THE INVALIDS HOME IN BUFFALO
Dr. R. V. Pierce’s Invalids and Tourists’ Hotel, in Buffalo N. Y., was formally opened on Monday evening last. Patients will be admitted there on Friday, and thereafter. It is said that the building was erected at a cost of nearly $500,000. The site is healthful and agreeable, and the plazas of the house command fine views of Lake Erie and Niagra River. The hospital department is distinct from the hotel proper, and it is the desire of the founder of the institution that the place shall be patronized by summer tourists as well as by invalids. Chronic diseases of every description will be treated in the sanitarium. The house is tastefully furnished throughout, the furniture being of antique and Oriental design, and the carpeting and upholstery of rich materials and patterns…A steam elevator conveys inmates to the upper floors, and the house is provided with bath appliances of all sorts and a well-furnished gymnasium.
This early advertisement listed their rates between $2.50 and $3.50 per day.
The tourist business apparently took off because shortly after the hotel opened, Pierce built an extension for the sick, completely separating them from the tourists, and renamed the hotel “Pierce’s Palace.” The new name was reflected in this August 30, 1879 advertisement.
It was around the same time that newspapers all over the country reported that Pierce had incorporated his entire business under the name: “World’s Medical Dispensary Association.”
Dr. R. V. Pierce, having acquired a reputation in the treatment of Chronic Diseases resulting in a business far exceeding his individual ability to conduct, some years ago induced several medical gentlemen to associate themselves with him, as the Faculty of the World’s Dispensary, the Consulting Department, of which has since been merged with the Invalid’s Hotel. The organization has now been completed and incorporated under statute enacted by the Legislature of the State of New York, under the name and style of the “World’s Dispensary Medical Association.”
The story went on to say that the business was establishing a branch overseas in London.
A branch of the “World’s Dispensary Medical Association” is to be established in London, Eng., a step which the continually increasing European business of the Dispensary has been found to warrant, and next week Dr. B. T. Bedortha will sail for the great metropolis named, to superintend the organization of the new institution…Heretofore the foreign business of the World’s Dispensary has been transacted through the agency of prominent druggists, but it has assumed such proportions as to require more direct care.
Tragically, on February 16, 1881, less than three years after it opened, Pierce’s Palace Hotel, including the invalid’s extension, was destroyed by fire; thankfully with no loss of life. A lengthy story describing the fire in the February 17, 1881 edition of the Buffalo Morning Express opened like this:
A storm of wind and snow, with severe cold, reached and swept over the city early yesterday afternoon as if a designed accompaniment for the work of the more destructive element of fire. An alarm sounded shortly after two o’clock and soon news flew through the streets and into people’s homes that one of the most splendid elements of Buffalo, Pierce’s Palace Hotel… was in flames and its rescue hopeless.
The same story concluded like this:
Thus stood the Palace Hotel yesterday forenoon, proud and beautiful, the admiration alike of resident and stranger, a magnificent monument to the broad enterprise and public spirit of an honored citizen. By its destruction the most attractive to the eye of all the buildings of Buffalo has disappeared and our people will not only sympathize with Dr. Pierce for his misfortune, but each will feel that a part of the loss is his or her own. The loss of hardly any other edifice within our city’s limits could cause such a general feeling of regret.
After the fire, ads in Feb/March, 1881 made it clear that Pierce remained in business at the World’s Dispensary’s 80 W Seneca location, apparently making hotel accommodations “catch as catch can.”
Subsequently on May 19, 1882 a Buffalo Commercial story announced that Pierce had consolidated the business in two newly erected buildings. The buildings were situated back to back with the Invalids Hotel and Surgical Institute located at 663 Main Street. Behind it, the World’s Dispensary was located at 660 to 670 Washington Street. A view of the Invalids Hotel with the World’s Dispensary visible in the background was included in later editions of Pierce’s Medical Advisor.
The hotel building was described in the following advertisement as:
Not a Hospital But a Pleasant Remedial Home.
Sketches in the Medical Advisor reveal that not only was the facility pleasant but high end as well. The grand main entrance was described like this:
The entrance to the Invalid’s Hotel and Surgical Institute is covered by a lofty porch of beautiful design, the roof of which is supported upon heavy iron columns. Above the massive double doors, through which the visitor enters, are large heavy panels of stained glass, on which the words “Invalids Hotel and Surgical Institute” stand out conspicuously.
Inside, the first floor included, among other rooms, ladies’ and mens’ parlors, described like this:
The wood-work is mainly of hard woods, oak and cherry predominating. In a large part of the house the floors are of oak, with a cherry border, neatly finished in oil and shellac, and covered with rich rugs and elegant carpets of the very best quality.
Here’s a sketch of the ladies’ parlor.
Upstairs, the patient rooms appear just as ornate.
The third floor accommodated the treatment rooms which according to the Medical Advisor contained “apparatus and appliances for the successful management of every chronic malady incident to mankind.”
Electrical apparatus of the latest and most approved kinds some of it driven and operated by steam power, dry-cupping and equalizing treatment apparatus, “vitalization” apparatus, numerous and most ingenious rubbing and manipulating apparatus and machinery, driven by steam power….
Another floor accommodated the Surgical Department, which thankfully they don’t describe in any detail!
Not only did Pierce treat patients in person at the Institute but if you couldn’t make it to Buffalo he’d treat you by mail. (Tele – medicine 150 years before its time?) That operation, performed by what Pierce called their Bureau of Medical Correspondence, was also housed in the hotel and was described like this:
…From ten to twelve physicians, with their stenographers or short-hand writers are constantly employed in attending to the vast correspondence received from invalids residing in all parts of the United States and Canada. Every important case receives the careful consideration of a council composed of three to five of these expert specialists before finally being passed upon and prescribed for.
Fronting on Washington Street and connected to the hotel via a main floor corridor was the World’s Dispensary.
According to the Medical Advisor it was here that:
wherein are manufactured our Dr. Pierce’s Family Medicines, as well as all the various tinctures, fluid extracts and other pharmaceutical preparations used by the staff of the Invalids’ Hotel and Surgical Institute in their practice…
The extent of the operation might best be judged by this sketch of their wrapping and mailing room.
Just as important, if not more so, was their printing department, a sketch of which is included below. It had certainly come a long way since the single Gordon printing press they operated at 133 Seneca Street.
On this (third) floor are the Association’s extensive printing and binding works. Thirteen large presses, driven by power, with numerous folding machines, trimming, cutting, and stitching machinery, are constantly running in this department. Here is printed and bound Dr. Pierce’s popular work of over 1,000 pages, denominated “The People’s Common Sense Medical Advisor,” over 250,000 copies of which have been sold. Millions of pocket memorandum books, pamphlets, circulars and cards are also issued from this department and scattered broadcast to every corner of the globe.
The importance Pierce continued to place on print advertising can be gauged by the fact that the printing and mailing operation consumed well over one entire floor of his new building, and by then even that wasn’t enough, a fact Dr. Pierce’s son, Valentine, made clear in an interview with “Printers’ Ink” that was published in their November 16, 1898 edition.
But even with these facilities we cannot do all our own printing. Some of it is done in Chicago and some in Philadelphia. Every day we use about $300 worth of one cent stamps for mailing memorandum books and ladies note books. To this you may add a force varying from 20 to 25 of our own distributors, who are traveling, and who put out about 20,000 more books daily in different states.
Around the turn of the century Pierce added another facet to the business when he decided that instead of just filling medicine bottles, he’d manufacture the bottles as well. So, in 1905 he established and incorporated the Pierce Glass Company. The incorporation notice was published in the August 8, 1905 edition of the Buffalo Commercial.
According to a May 4, 1906 story in the Buffalo Evening News, Pierce had leased the bankrupt “Mansfield Glass Company,” in nearby St. Mary’s, Pennsylvania. Another story, this one published under the heading “Of Interest to Glassworkers,” in the September 19, 1906 edition of the Independence (Kansas) Daily, announced that Pierce was scheduled to “put his plant in operation” sometime around October 15, 1906, “to manufacture bottles exclusively.”
Later it was destroyed by fire after which, the June 11, 1911 edition of the Buffalo Times reported that Pierce was to rebuild his factory in Hamburg, New York.
The company’s plant at St Mary’s Pa., was recently destroyed by fire and after looking over various places Dr. Pierce decided on Hamburg. The Business Men’s Club took the matter up and procured a site adjacent to the Susquehanna Station and here the new plant of the Pierce Glass Company will be erected. It will cover four acres of ground and have switches running into the plant from the B&S Railroad.
This photograph of their Hamburg plant appeared years later in a story headlined “Out of the Past” in the July 24, 1986 edition of the Hamburg Sun and Erie County Independent.
The June, 1911 story went on to say that Pierce wasn’t just making bottles for his own purposes.
The glass works make bottles for Dr. Pierce’s World’s Dispensary and for many other proprietary medicine concerns, including Dr. Kilmer, Lydia Pinkham, Omega Oil, Pond’s Extract and Dr. Tenner and, will ship many carloads every week to various parts of the United States. The factory buildings will be completed in August and glass blowing will start September 1st. The company will employ 130 people and the payroll will amount to $3,000 a week, as blowers receive $10 to $15 a day.
Subsequently, the March 17, 1917 edition of the Buffalo Commercial announced that the factory had moved again, this time to Port Alleghany, Pennsylvania.
The Pierce Glass Company have dismantled the plant and moved to Port Alleghany…The factory was located on the Buffalo & Wellsville railroad line and was closed because the railroad was closed.
Meanwhile, back in Buffalo, R. V. Pierce passed away in 1914 and his son, Valentine Mott Pierce, who had apparently been running the show for a while, assumed the presidency.
He continued to operate the Invalids’ Hotel and Surgical Institute at its Main Street location for several decades, sometimes referring to it as a “Clinic.”
In 1934 they celebrated their 60th anniversary.
Advertisements commemorating the event touted a couple of new features.
A new department in which sun treatment is given has recently been opened. This is used in nearly all cases and helps in restoring health.
There is a complete X-ray laboratory, as well as a clinical laboratory for microscopic examinations, where many otherwise obscure cases are made perfectly clear for accurate diagnosis.
The beginning of the end for Pierce’s Invalids Hotel and Surgical Institute likely came on December 13, 1939 when the Federal Trade Commission included this “cease and desist” order in a stipulation (No. 02482) dated December 13, 1939 .
It is further agreed that the World’s Dispensary Medical Association in connection with the dissemination of advertising by the means or in the manner above set out will cease and desist from representing –
By use of the word “association” or word or words of similar import or meaning in its corporate title or otherwise that it is an association of doctors or medical men;
that complete medical advice is given those persons who write for the same.
Not being able to call themselves doctors or call their advice “medical advice” must have been a lethal blow, and a little over a year later, on August 1, 1941, the Invalids’ Hotel and Surgical Institute discontinued operations.
Valentine Mott Pierce passed away in 1942 and two years later, the July 21, 1944 edition of the Kane (Pa.) Republican announced that Pierce’s estate had jettisoned the glass works.
A deal was closed in Port Alleghany whereby Howard C. Herger, superintendent of the Pierce Glass Company, purchased the common stock of the V. M. Pierce estate in the company. As a considerable majority of the stock had been owned by the Pierce interests, the transaction is said to involve the transfer of a large amount of money.
The Dispensary on the other hand continued in business until sometime in the early 1960’s under the direction of R. V. Pierce’s grandson, also named Ray Vaughn Pierce. Sometime around 1950 the business changed its name to “Pierce’s Proprietaries,” and by 1951, they were no longer located at their long time Washington Street home, now listing their address as 127 Kehr Street.
A labeled example of “Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery” that dates to this era recently appeared for sale on the internet.
As late as March 31, 1960, the feature on Dr. Pierce published in his home town newspaper, the Titusville (Pa.) Herald, stated that Pierce’s Proprietaries was still in business on Kehr Street, Buffalo and that Pierce’s grandson Ray Vaughn Pierce was still serving as president.
It’s not exactly clear when the manufacturing piece of the business came to an end. As late as January 22, 1965, a pharmacy called Nitzel’s in Muscatine, Iowa was still advertising both Pierce’s Favorite Prescription and Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery under the heading “Do You Remember These Family Remedies”(listed on the left side – 4th and 5th from the top). While still in stock there, the headline certainly suggested that if they were still being manufactured at that point, it was just barely.
Like the Pierce business, their first preparation, “Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery,” underwent numerous changes over the course of its near century life span. Initially, late 1860’s advertisements primarily touted it specifically for lung related diseases.
For the cure of all Bronchial and Throat diseases and consumption in its early stage nothing equals Dr. Pierce’s Alterative Extract or Golden Medical Discovery.
Less than a decade later, advertisements, circa 1878, claimed it cured just about everything under the sun.
By reason of its Alterative properties, cures diseases of the Blood and Skin, as Scrofula, or King’s Evil; Tumors; Ulcers, or old Sores; Blotches; Pimples; and Eruptions.
By virtue of its Pectoral properties, it cures Bronchial, Throat and Lung Affections; Incipient Consumption; Lingering Coughs; and Chronic Laryngitis.
Its Cholagogue properties render it an unequalled remedy for Billousness, Torpid Liver or “Liver Complaint;” and its
Tonic properties make it equally efficacious in curing Indigestion, Loss of Appetite and Dyspepsia.
Sometime in the late 1870’s or early 1880’s the ingredients of this so-called “miracle” drug came into question when published formulas for both “Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery” and “Pierce’s Favorite Prescription,” indicated that they contained opium and alcohol. Over the next two decades these formulas would occasionally appear in publications with names like “An Encyclopedia of Practical Information,” and “Dr. Chase’s Book of Recpies.”
Pierce typically denied the accusation, usually with a sworn statement to the contrary. However, when the more widely read Ladies Home Journal published the formula for “Pierce’s Favorite Prescription,” Pierce sued the magazine’s editor and ultimately forced a retraction. The suit focused on “Pierce’s Favorite Prescription” but was certainly applicable to his “Golden Medical Discovery” as well. According to the May, 1905 Merck Report:
It will be recalled that some months ago, Dr. Pierce brought suit against Editor Bok, of the “Ladies Home Journal,” for publishing what purported to be the results of an analysis by the German chemist, Hager, of Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription, which analysis made it appear that it contained certain harmful ingredients. As a result of this suit, Editor Bok’s journal later published a retraction, stating that Hager’s analysis had been made twenty-five years before, and that analyses made by three leading chemists employed by defendants showed conclusively that no digitalis, opium or alcohol is contained in Dr. Pierce’s Prescription.
The Editorial Board of a publication called “The Medico-Pharmaceutical Critic & Guide” wasn’t convinced. They wrote:
Suppose Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription does not contain any opium, digitalis, opium or alcohol. First, this does not mean that it never contained any. It is more than probable that when the original report, from which Mr. Bok quoted, was printed, the preparation did contain those ingredients. That is just the curse of the secret nostrum business, that the manufacturers can change the composition at their will and pleasure. “There is an outcry against alcohol – well, we will leave it out, or diminish the proportion in our next batch. There is an outcry against morphine and cocaine, let us leave out those alkaloids for a while. Quinine is too high now – we will put in half the amount.” And so on, and so on. I therefore say that its more than likely that “Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription” did originally contain the poisonous ingredients.”
…In fighting humbug and quackery we need aid from all quarters and the Ladies Home Journal is an extremely welcome, because an extremely useful, ally. Mr. Bok, the Critic & Guide welcomes you into its ranks.
Pierce responded by releasing the formulas in, you guessed it, a series of newspaper advertisements with eye catching headlines.
To refute the many false and malicious attacks, bogus formulas and other untruthful statements published concerning Doctor Pierce’s World-famed Family Medicines the Doctor has decided to publish all the ingredients entering into his “Favorite Prescription” for women and his equally popular tonic alterative known as Dr. Pierces Golden Medical Discovery. Hereafter every bottle of these medicines, leaving the great laboratory at Buffalo, N. Y., will bear upon it a full list of all the ingredients entering into the compound. Both are made entirely from native roots, barks and herbs.
Many advertisements went on to list the “1905” ingredients for both preparations. The purported ingredients of “Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery” were described like this:
Briefly then let us say that the ‘Golden Medical Discovery” was named from the sturdy little plant Golden Seal, the root of which enters largely into its composition. Besides this most valuable ingredient, it contains glyceric extracts of Stone root, Black Cherrybark, Bloodroot and Mandrake root.
Several years later, a 1912 analysis by the State of Connecticut confirmed there was no alcohol or opium present, however what they went on to say in their report couldn’t have pleased Dr. Pierce.
While it was impossible to determine the presence of the various alterative vegetable drugs claimed in the preparation, the total amount of vegetable extractives found was 11.2 per cent, hardly entitling it to be called “a very concentrated, vegetable extract.” The constituent drugs claimed to be present have a recognized therapeutic value, but hardly entitle it to the “cure all” properties claimed for it in its advertising literature. That these well known drugs by a mysterious combination, the result of ” a tedious course of study and experiment, extending over several years,” can become a “superior remedy” for coughs, bronchitis, laryngitis, weak lungs, sore throat, biliousness, dyspepsia, general debility, nervous prostration, blood diseases, skin diseases, catarrhal affections of all organs, heart diseases, malaria, constipation, kidney and bladder affections, etc., etc. is certainly a strain on one’s credibility.
It wasn’t just his ingredients that were under fire. As early as 1906, the American Medical Association was challenging some of his more outrageous curative claims. That year, their January 20th Journal included this item regarding the ability of the Golden Medical Discovery to cure consumption (Tuberculosis).
From the imposing book published by the R. V. Pierce Company of Buffalo I took a number of testimonials for investigation; not a large number, for I found the consumption testimonials very scarce. From fifteen letters I got results in nine cases. Seven of the letters were returned to me marked “unclaimed,” of which one was marked “Name not in the directory,” another “No such post office in the state,” and a third “Deceased.” The eighth man wrote that the Golden Medical Discovery had cured his cough and blood-spitting, adding: “It is the best medicine I ever used for lung trouble.” The last man said he took twenty-five bottles and was cured! Two out of nine seems to me a suspiciously small percentage of traceable recoveries… In the full appreciation of Dr. Pierce’s attitude in the matter of libel, I wish to state that in so far as its claim of curing consumption is concerned his Golden Medical Discovery is an unqualified fraud.
Apparently bowing to pressure from the medical community and the court of public opinion, not to mention food and drug legislation, by the 1920’s advertisements for the Golden Medical Discovery, while still stressing it was made from native roots and alcohol free, now touted it as a tonic, not a “cure-all.” This toned down approach is evident in this 1922 advertisement.
That being said, the Federal Trade Commission’s December 13, 1939 stipulations, also addressed the World’s Dispensary’s advertising of the “Golden Medical Discovery.”
World’s Dispensary Medical Association, a corporation, 665 Main Street Buffalo, N. Y., vendor-advertiser, was engaged in selling medicinal preparations designated Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery and Dr. Pierce’s Favorite Prescription and agreed, in connection with the dissemination of future advertising to cease and desist from representing directly or by implication – that a medicinal preparation now designated “Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery” or any other medicinal preparation containing substantially the same ingredients or possessing the same properties, whether sold under that name or any other name –
Will keep the digestive system in tune regardless of the system’s requirements; is an anti-acid or will counteract excess acidity of the stomach; will of itself build up the human system, relieve a weakened condition, tired run-down feeling, increase weight, pep, energy, vigor or vitality; or is the one and only recognized tonic.
Nonetheless, using phrases like “Promotes more normal stomach activity,” and “helps you avoid gas pains, heartburn and sour stomach,” they continued to advertise their “Golden Medical Discovery” up through the late 1950’s, as evidenced by this 1958 advertisement.
The bottle I found is mouth blown with a tooled finish and approximately 10 ounces in size. The bottle does not exhibit the Pierce Glass Company’s makers mark of a circled “P” on its base, suggesting that it was blown prior to 1906 when that company began operations.
The front panel is embossed: “Dr. Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery,” while one side panel is embossed: “R. V. Pierce, M. D.” and the other: “Buffalo, N. Y.” The embossing is very faint so you’ll need to take my word for it.
This labeled example of a similar bottle is courtesy of the New York Heritage Digital Collection.
At some point “Pierce’s Golden Medical Discovery” also became available in pill form as well. Based on an unscientific review of their advertisements, I suspect this occurred sometime in the early teens, but don’t hold me to it.