PATENT MEDICINES ONCE MADE LOCALLY (October 5/15)

Chicory, wormwood, Slender Vetch, Caraway, Hops and Tansy were introduced here by the Acadians, write the editors of A Natural History of Kings County.  Most of these plants were used for medicinal purposes.

When the Planters arrived, like the Acadians they probably used wild plants to treat minor complaints.  It’s likely as well the Planters, and later the Loyalists, brought with them a variety of patent medicines, which in turn came from Great Britain and other European countries.

Originally, patent medicine referred to medications that were given government protection.  This is a vague term – government protection – but generally it meant that medicines originally produced to treat the ailments of Royalty were under patent; that is, exclusive rights to produce such medicines were granted to the proprietors of these products.

But while the name stuck, and there being no way to enforce patent rights in far off  North America, a wide array of patent medicines soon appeared in the colonies.  Many of those medicines came here with the colonists but more than a few were doctored up locally; and if you carefully scan some of the early newspapers published in Kings County – such as the Western Chronicle and the newspaper that followed it, The Advertiser, you’ll find that nearly every page carried an advertisement for these patent medicines

What a strange and exotic array of patent medicine were found in these newspapers – patent medicines that offered relief or outright cures for every ailment, serious and minor, known to man and domestic animals, including a few ailments we didn’t know existed until the advertisements told us about them.

The production and sale of patent medicines was a big and profitable business, by the way, even here in the Annapolis Valley.  Patent medicines were even produced locally at one time, in Kentville for example.  Burpee Robertson Bishop (1868-1957) operated a mercantile store in Kentville and made a reputation for himself as a historical researcher and writer.  He also dabbled in patent medicines, apparently creating and bottling them under his own name.  It’s possible also that one James Neary concocted and sold patent medicines in Kentville around the same time as Burpee Bishop.  There’s a tantalizing one line reference to Neary’s patent medicines in an old obituary I found at the Kings County Museum.

However, Burpee Bishop and James Neary were tiny operations compared to C. Gates, Son & Co. of Middleton.  A family operation, Gates was the king of all patent medicine producers and purveyors in this region from about 1843 until the early part of the 20th century.  Gates products (offered in their advertisements as invigorating syrups, blood purifiers, nerve ointments, liver and bowel pills, summer complaint relief, cures for lame back and sore eyes) were sold at one time throughout the Maritimes.

As well as being popular here in Kings County, Gates household remedies also received international acclaim.  In 1893, Gates sent a collection of their medicines to the Colonial Exhibition in London and were awarded a “Commemorative Medal” signifying the excellence of their products.  Earlier, in 1884, Gates received favourable notice when samples of their medicines were judged at the Antwerp Exhibition.

According to a story on Gates in a 1916 issue of the Busy East of Canada magazine, Gates patent medicines worked “wondrous cures,” as attested to by numerous written testimonials.  “Doctors were astonished at the effects of the remedies.” notes the Busy East, and more than one of them tried to buy the Gates recipes for use in their own practice.

Gates very first patent medicine, one said to work miraculous results on the sick, was concocted from ingredients found growing in the countryside, using a recipe given to the family by a stranger passing through the community of North Middleton.  One can wonder if there’s an Acadian connection.  Did the Gates family gather up and concoct their patent medicine from some of the medicinal plants brought here by the Acadians?  It’s possible.  Very possible.  The Busy East magazine articles tells us the passing stranger took one of the Gates family out into nearby fields to collect the plants used in the recipe.

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