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Pink Pills for Pale People

Package of Pink Pills for Pale People

In the 19th century--an era when medicine and the human body were little understood--patent medicines or nostrums like these "Pink Pills for Pale People" offered hope.

Slick advertising and catchy names led millions to send away for a chance at good health. Given the fact that an estimated 80% of human illnesses cure themselves without medical intervention, many people were led to believe that patent medicines were effective.

Bad Blood

During this time, illness was often attributed to an imbalance of the humors (forces of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water). These forces were supposed to be embodied in blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. The body was viewed as a unified system and the key to good health required maintaining the equilibrium of these forces by regulating the intake and outflow of the body. To do this, the secretions of the body, including urine, feces, sweat and menstrual flow were to be controlled.

A "patent" medicine was a ready-mixed nostrum that was self-prescribed, as opposed to a doctor-prescribed medicine whose ingredients were mixed together by a pharmacist for an individual patient. In England, patents were granted at the pleasure of the sovereign, however, in America few remedies were actually patented but rather their name was trademarked. The trademark or "patent" medicine did not have to actually work and its contents could change over time, but the use of the name belonged solely to the proprietor. Devices such as alliteration were used to catch the consumer's attention. Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People used this concept by stringing together four words that start with the letter 'P.' Carter's Little Liver Pills, Dr. Coderre's Red Pills for Pale and Weak Women, and Dr. Wilson's Blue Pills for Blue People also used this device to attract customers.

Topeka drug store with "Pink Pills" sign on lefthand counter, ca. 1900George Fulford, Brockville, Ontario, formed G. T. Fulford & Company in 1887 to manufacture and distribute patent medicines. Three years later, the company acquired the rights to Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People. By marketing the pills through Dr. Williams' Medicine Company (the trading arm of G. T. Fulford & Company), George Fulford made his fortune. Within five years, Dr. Williams' Medicine Company expanded throughout North America, Europe and the British Empire; in all, the pills were advertised in 82 countries.

Containing a combination of iron oxide and epsom salts, Dr. Williams' Pink Pills were touted to Civil War veterans with digestive problems, malaria, wounds, and emotional disturbances. Later advertisements claimed that the pink pills were a remedy for many female ailments and could restore the blood and nerves. In 1899, the pills were said to be a restorative for locomotor ataxia, partial paralysis, St. Vitus' dance, sciatica, neuralgia, rheumatism, nervous headache, the after effects of la grippe, palpitation of the heart, pale and sallow complexions, all forms of weakness either in male or female, and all diseases resulting from the vitiated humors in the blood.

Consumer Protection

Some "patent" medicines were simply a combination of flavoring, coloring and aromatics. Others contained dangerous opiates or alcohol and could be lethal if the dosage was too high; children were particularly susceptible. During the Progressive Era (1900-1920), some Americans grew increasingly wary of medicines that contained addictive drugs and alcohol. As a result, legislation to protect the consumer was greatly expanded in the 20th century. This included the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 that required more accurate and honest labeling of medicines. Despite the law, proprietors did not have to prove their medicine was effective.

The label on this package of Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People reads:

  • Safe and Effective Tonic for the Blood and Nerves.
  • Anemic conditions, diseases caused by or dependent thin, impoverished blood and for nervous disorders resulting from malnutrition. Useful wherever a nervine or digestive tonic is required. These pills are guaranteed to contain no opiates or narcotics. Contents 40 pills.
  • Price 50 cents. 6 boxes for $2.50.
  • The Dr. Williams Medical Company. Schenectady, N.Y. and Brockville, Ontario.
  • W.T. Hanson Company, Schenectady, N.Y. U.S. distributors.
  • Directions inside in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian.

Entry: Pink Pills for Pale People

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: July 2002

Date Modified: December 2014

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.