Wednesday, Jul. 17, 2019


By Robert L. Harrison · April 30, 2018

So called patent medicines were very popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  These tonics typically promised a cure for virtually any known ailment.  Perhaps the best known of these tonics, Sarsaparilla, was enjoyed both for medicinal purposes and for refreshment.  It was said to have been the most popular drink among ranchers and cowboys.

Sarsaparilla was originally made from the root of smilax ornata, a plant native to Central America.  In Spanish the plant is known as zarzaparrilla.  Later versions of the American drink included small amounts of the smilax ornata plant combined with various other vegetable extracts such as dandelion, mandrake, pipsissewa, and juniper berries.  For many years alcohol, at approximately 17% to 20% by volume, was a key ingredient in sarsaparilla.  The modern sarsaparilla is a non-alcoholic drink, artificially flavored and considered a type of root beer.

From the time of the earliest occupation of California by Europeans, sarsaparilla has been a feature of the local culture.  The San Francisco Californian, the State’s first newspaper, included a sarsaparilla advertisement in the August 7, 1847 edition titled “New Goods, Cheap for Cash.”  A store with the name Shelley & Norris, at the corner of Clay and Kearny Streets, offered over 100 articles, including sarsaparilla, “…for sale, low for Cash.”

The very first issue of the Marin Journal, March 23, 1861, contained a discussion by the makers of Sand’s Sarsaparilla.  It proclaimed: “[the] premonitory symptoms of disease, are the precursors of many fatal maladies.  Taken upon the first indication of an attack, if anything will relieve the sufferer, purify the blood, restore a vigorous character, and thoroughly renovate the system, it’s Sand’s Sarsaparilla.”  In the mid-19th century sarsaparilla was much more than just a refreshing drink; it was widely accepted as medicinal.

Through the latter half of the 19th century at least seven brands of sarsaparilla were advertised in Marin newspapers.  These included: Sand’s; Hall’s; Ayer’s; Bristol’s; Scovill’s; Taliferro’s; and Hood’s.  Nearly all were national companies but Taliaferro’s Sarsaparilla was made by the Osgood Brothers in Oakland using the formula created by Dr. Alfred W. Taliaferro of San Rafael. 

Dr. Taliaferro was a Marin county pioneer who arrived in 1849 and shortly thereafter opened the first drug store in San Rafael.  He was known to be available to tend to anyone, anywhere, at almost any time. His practice was to bill only those patients he felt could afford it.  Residents referred to him as the “little doctor”.  He was treated with great affection.  In 1885 Dr. Taliaferro died at age 58 of pneumonia after making a medical visit on a rainy night.  There is no evidence to suggest the doctor was an enthusiastic supporter of sarsaparilla for medical purposes.

In the 1890s a most visible advertiser in Marin newspapers was Hood’s Sarsaparilla.  Hood’s, one of the largest patent medicine companies in the country, was prepared in a 175,000 square-foot factory in Lowell, Massachusetts.  The company was a leader in the development of color lithography as an advertising tool. Its in-house advertising division produced thousands of posters, calendars, cookbooks and pamphlets.

The Hood’s advertisements in local Marin newspapers incorporated sketches of users describing their great success with Hood’s.  Testimonials covered a wide range of ailments: relief after 40 years on crutches due to rheumatism; eight boils eliminated at once; relief from a bilious, rundown or tired feeling.

The pamphlet enclosed with the tonic listed many additional ailments that would be relieved by Hood’s Sarsaparilla: Ulcer of the stomach, liver or kidneys; Tumors; Salt Rheum; Cankers; Pimples; Pain in the head and Side; Sciatica; Scald-head; Catarrh; Dyspepsia; Female Weakness; Leucorrhoea; Varicose Veins; Dropsy; Syphilitic Affections; Diphtheria; Scarlet Fever; Typhoid Fever; Pneumonia; Nervousness; Emaciation; General Debility and That Tired Feeling.

By the beginning of the 20th century patent medicines were becoming controversial and losing support among medical professionals.  Some doctors called them nothing but compounds of poisons and opiates.  The Collier Magazine ran a series of influential articles by Samuel Hopkins Adams entitled, “The Great American Fraud,” exposing the unsafe methods in the manufacture of the medicines.  The war on patent medicines culminated on June 30, 1906 when President Theodore Roosevelt signed the first federal Pure Food and Drug Act. 

While sarsaparilla as a medicine was in decline, it was still popular as a soft drink.  The Borello Brothers of San Rafael produced several soft drinks using their “Famous Tamalpais Mineral Water” from the well at Hayes and First Streets.  Among them were such flavors as “Tamalpais Pineapple, Lemonade, Orangeade, Creme, Queen Charlotte, Ginger Ale, and Tamalpais Sarsaparilla.” The purity of the these drinks was called into question when the California Pure Foods Bureau paid a visit to the Borello Bottling Works and discovered sodium benzoate in several drinks including the Tamalpais Sarsaparilla.  Arrest warrants were issued according to the Sausalito News of March 11, 1911. 

Sarsaparilla, along with many other patent medicines, was examined carefully in the early 20th century.  A particularly detailed analysis was conducted in 1916 by C. P. Guthrie, Ph.D, B.S., for the North Dakota Agricultural Experiment Station.  This study found Hood’s Sarsaparilla compound contained several vegetable extracts, including sarsaparilla, and 17% alcohol.  Guthrie’s report on Hood’s included the list of over 40 ailments for which the tonic is recommended by the manufacturer and concluded “one would expect to find a real panacea….. It would seem strange that in this city [Lowell, MA] of medical enlightenment that any firm would publish such ridiculous and deceptive literature.”

While it was losing credibility as a medicine, sarsaparilla was included in the March 1920 advertisement for “strength tonics” available at Lockwood’s Pharmacy in Mill Valley, Phone 267.  The ad read: “INFLUENZA Leaves You Weak and Listless – But why complain….when you can soon Feel Like Your Old Self Again if you ….take any of the strength…tonics, such as….Sarsaparilla Compound…”   There were eight strength compounds listed in Lockwood’s advertisement.

The status of sarsaparilla as a popular drink was confirmed by a story involving President Calvin Coolidge.  When Coolidge, who was regarded as being out of touch with the thinking of average people, was apprised of discontent about Prohibition, he inquired as to the cause of the grumblings.  He was told, “Sir, the people have no beer.”  Coolidge is said to have replied, “Well then, let them drink sarsaparilla.”

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