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Dr. Donald’s Trumpsparilla: Selling quack nostrums to gullible Americans



Back in the 1840s, sarsaparilla, a beverage made from the root of a plant (and the ancestor of the drink we call “root beer”), was enormously popular in America as a “patent medicine.” In an era before prescription drugs and oversight by the Food and Drug Administration, such “nostrums” were bought by millions of people to heal their physical problems: rashes, thin blood, impotence, venereal disease, epilepsy, and what-have-you. Some nostrums, such as Dr. Sibly’s Solar Tincture, were even said to “restore life in the event of sudden death.”

One of the most popular brands was Dr. S.P. Townsend’s Sarsaparilla.

sasparillaProduced in Albany, N.Y., it was advertised as “invigorat[ing] the whole system permanently. Those who have lost their muscular energy…can be entirely restored by this pleasant remedy.”

By the time of the Civil War, such extravagant and unprovable claims were already the butt of jokes among educated people. In 1865, after Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson had assumed the presidency, and was in the process of the epic power struggles with Congress that would result in his Impeachment. So-called Radicals, in the Republican Party and among the dying Abolitionists, were demanding immediate suffrage for Negroes freed by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Others, including more moderate Republicans and Democrats, particularly from the South, urged a slower, more cautious approach.

One of those go-slowers was the Senator from Illinois, Lyman Trumbull (who had caucused with various political parties before settling down with the Democrats). In debate on the floor of the Senate on the suffrage question, Trumbull debunked the radical notion that giving former Slaves the right to vote “would feed the hungry or clothe the naked colored people of the South. Since the days of Townsend’s Sarsaparilla,” he added, he had “not heard of such an universal remedy for human woes as…proposed to make out of the right of suffrage.”

Today, in Donald Trump, we have the latest incarnation of the nostrum sales pitch, a reborn Dr. S.P. Townsend huckstering his patent medicine to gullible buyers. He promises things in the most grandiose terms: every problem, every issue, will be solved with his election in “amazing,” “fantastic,” unbelievable,” “huge” and “incredible” ways, including, of course, the money-back guarantee to “make American great again.” “The king of the superlative,” the conservative National Review calls him.

Among Trump’s grandiosities: “I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created,” “I will build a great wall,” “I would use the greatest minds.” As for his enemies, Trump resorts to negative superlatives: Hillary Clinton was “the worst secretary of state in the history of the United States” while Barack Obama is “the worst president in history.”

The era of ridiculous claims for patent medicines ebbed at the end of the nineteenth century, and by the early 1900s, exposés by reform-minded, muckraking journalists led the Congress to pass, and Republican President Theodore Roosevelt to sign, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. For the first time in U.S. law, “misbranding” was defined: Section 8 of the law defined misbranding as claims “which shall be false or misleading in any particular…as to deceive or mislead the purchaser…”.

The good news is that it is now illegal in America to lie and make fake health claims about foods, drugs or beverages. This surely represents progress and it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to go back to the bad old days of “restoring life in the event of sudden death.” The bad news is that it’s still permissible for politicians such as Trump to lie. We can never make a law against political fraudsters, of course, but what is conceivable is that our nation could develop public morés—an old word referring to the moral sanction a majority of people place upon obvious grifters and swindlers. If America held to a notion of censuring hustlers, Trump would be roundly booed off every stage. He certainly would not be taken seriously by cowed television anchors like Wolf Blitzer and Chuck Todd.

Alas, America has no such standards of truth. A Donald Trump is permitted to get away with making blatantly false and misleading promises, with little if any challenge from the mainstream media; the days of crusading muckrakers, sad to say, are gone.

  1. There is this aspect to peddling snake oil and other medical quackery.

    What’s known in advertising as “puffery.”

    “Advertising Professor Huffs On Puffs in Quixotic Contest”


    “What occupies University of Wisconsin [advertising] Prof. [Ivan] Preston’s mind is ‘puffery.’ He has been wondering about it since 1970 when he read in a law book that a puff is legal even if it’s a lie. … Prosser & Keeton, the classic torts text, calls the puffery rule ‘a seller’s privilege to lie his head off.’ Why? Because the law assumes that nobody with any sense would ever mistake a puff for the truth.”)

    Something that the Federal Trade Commission acknowledges but does not regulate.

  2. My instinct was that I would like this blog even more when it expanded beyond the wine world, and yes I do.

    But we can still find aspects of the wine scene to connect to this post: is how Townsend sold his Sarsaparilla very far from grinning winemakers clutching their bull-shit filled cow horns?

  3. Dear Bill Dyer, thanks for liking my blog! As for your question: Marketing is marketing. It never changes. That doesn’t mean it’s entirely bullshit. It’s the job of writers/critics to point out the real stuff from the hype. To me, cow horns are silly, but I do not, repeat not, want to disrespect winemakers who really believe in biodynamique. More power to them.

  4. Bill and Steve, et. al.:

    Are you aware if any wine grape grower has done a side-by-side test of adjacent rows or plots of land using organic versus biodynamic practices?

    (Let’s assume the soil is identical so as not to introduce one more variable.)

    What are the putative benefits of biodynamic over organic?

    ~~ Bob

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