Smithsonian Collects Historic Patent Medicines Spanning 150 Years

April 16, 2008

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History medical history collection recently received a donation of more than 375 historic North American patent medicines and toiletry items, as well as 75 related almanacs and eight advertising signs. The museum’s collection of patent medicines is considered one of the strongest in the world. Patent medicines and related products are an old term for nonprescription name-brand medication.

The collection was donated by Richard Pollay, professor emeritus of commerce for the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, who began collecting the materials more than 30 years ago.

Pollay’s expertise in the history of commerce and advertising is reflected in his extensive collection. The objects range from the 1860s to the 1950s—spanning 150 years of American medical history. The collection contains objects produced and used across the United States and Canada from the West Coast, Upper Midwest and Canada—geographical areas of interest to the museum.

“This donation helps us preserve our nation’s rich medical history, and thanks to professor Pollay, the museum can continue to build a comprehensive record of American health practices of the past,” said museum director Brent Glass.

The Smithsonian began to collect objects related to health and medicine in 1881, with patent medicines first added in 1930. The patent medicine collection has more than 4,000 products, dating from the 19th century to the present day.

During the past 10 years, staff have focused on documenting the museum’s extensive collection of patent medicines. Information regarding ingredients, therapeutic subjects, dates and images have been added to electronic records. Examples of the museum’s collections can be found at http://www.americanhistory.si.edu/patentmedicines

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. Documenting the American experience from Colonial times to the present, the museum looks at growth and change in the United States. The museum is closed for major renovations and will re-open in fall 2008. For information about the museum, please visit http://americanhistory.si.edu or call Smithsonian Information at
(202) 633-1000, (202) 633-5285 (TTY).