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July 16 , 2009

Snake Oil, Hustlers and Hambones: The American Medicine Show


Long before television and radio commercials beckoned to potential buyers, the medicine show provided free entertainment and promised cures for everything from corns to cancer. Combining elements of the circus, theater, vaudeville, and good old-fashioned entrepreneurship, the showmen of the American medicine show sold tonics, ointments, pills, extracts and a host of other "wonder-cures," guaranteed to "cure what ails you." While the cures were seldom miraculous, the medicine show was an important part of American culture and of performance history. Harry Houdini, Buster Keaton, and P.T. Barnum all took a turn upon the medicine show stage. This study of the medicine show phenomenon surveys nineteenth century popular entertainment and provides insight into the ways in which show business, advertising, and medicine manufacture developed in concert. The colorful world of the medicine show, with its Wild West shows, pie-eating contests, clowns, and menageries, is fully explored. Photographs of performers and of the fascinating handbills and posters used to promote the medicine show are included.

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