Saturday, April 26, 2008

Selling the Sagwa

John E. Healey and Texas Charlie Bigelow are very likely a big part of your life, yet the vast majority of people have absolutely no idea who they were or what they did. You deal with their legacy most every day. This is the story as to why this is.

Victorian America was living in an interesting balance between old world fears and new science. Victorians were terrified of contracting dreaded diseases like tuberculosis (consumption), cancer and kidney disease. True to the Galenic theory of keeping the four bodily humors in balance to remain healthy, physicians had compiled an abysmal record of confronting these problems. The Victorian mind began to become suspicious of the high priced and rarely successful treatments. This distrust of the medical profession was especially prevalent among the impoverished and poorly educated.

Another thing that they were taught to fear was Indians, but an interesting phenomenon was occurring as the Indians were pushed further and further west. The folks in the east became interested in all things Indian; the “noble savages” had gone from bloodthirsty brutes to possessor’s sage wisdom in the span of about two generations. Indians were all the rage.

The ability to grasp these two facets of the late 19th century mind was what brought Mr. Healey and Mr. Bigelow together. They figured that if they could convince the American public that these wise Indians had long ago conquered the physical ills that they dreaded so much, and that they themselves had learned their secret, they may be able to turn a buck. In 1881 they mixed up, according to legend, a batch of aloes and stale beer and named this new found cure-all Kickapoo Indian Sagwa.

They had the product, now for the marketing. Newspaper ads were fine, but what of the massive percentage of the population that did not bother with newspapers, who could not read English or could not read at all? No radio or television airwaves for Healy and Bigelow. They had to take their Sagwa to the streets. They imagined that they would have an extremely difficult time assembling and keeping a crowd with somewhat unbelievable promises of restored health alone. They needed a gimmick.

The answer that they came up with was to hire Indians, hundreds of them. It did not matter if they were Kickapoo or not, just that they looked like Indians. The idea was that a group of Indians would draw a crowd of curious spectators by performing ritual dances, telling stories and singing supposedly Kickapoo traditional songs. It worked incredibly well at drawing a curious, receptive crowd and set the mood for them to be subtly manipulated.

In between entertaining acts, the Healey and Bigelow pitch man would take center stage and make his wild claims to those assembled, always with the promise of more and better entertainment to come. This promise kept the crowd from dispersing after the act, which kept them present for the sales pitch. Dozens of the Indians would go out in the crowd bearing bottles of Sagwa bent on creating a buying frenzy. They would yell for “more bottles” to be brought out, and lead the frenzied crowd to think that they would run out of Sagwa. This prompted folks who were on the fence about buying to snatch up a bottle before it was too late. This was the birth of the “American Traveling Medicine Show.” Pretty soon all patent medicine manufacturers had their own shows staffed with comedians, vaudevillians and “freak shows”. They went to slaughter houses and procured hookworms that they would put in jars and claim that their nostrum had driven it out of a human host. They hung hand bills and trade cards. They painted their medicine sales pitch on rocks and trees. This phenomenon lasted into the early 1900s.

How does this figure into your 21st century daily life? The same tactics that were used to sell Kickapoo Indian Sagwa are the basis for modern day advertising. Television provides you with entertainment, but only to hold you on the couch to watch the commercials, because you are waiting patiently for the next bit of entertainment. Radio operates much the same way. Billions of dollars are spent by companies every year to try to figure out how to make their 30 second sales pitch most effective. You are assaulted daily with these ads and more. Trade cards became business cards. Painted trees became lighted signs. Painted rocks became billboards.

Thus ends the story. Next time you are sitting on the couch watching TV and a commercial comes on, keep in mind that the advertiser is simply “selling Sagwa”.

For any interested in aditional reading on the subject of patent medicines I would suggest "The Toadstool Millionaires" by James Harvey Young, Phd. This book both inspired and provided some factual background for this post. It can be read free and in its entirety at

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