From 1872 to 1881, William E. Clarke of Providence, Rhode Island manufactured and sold Hunt’s Remedy, a cure-all wonder drug known in New York and New England since at least 1850. He used colorful, dramatic trade cards to advertise his product, including one that inspired a match and medicine stamp long popular among revenue collectors.
The image on the front of the card shows a hale and hearty male patient wielding a bottle of Hunt’s Remedy against death, personified as a skeleton with a scythe and hourglass. The reverse lists no end of ailments against which the wonder drug has “never been known to fail,” including back pain, kidney problems, and “female diseases.”
It was Clarke himself who first translated this masterpiece of Victorian trade imagery into philately. In 1879 or 1880, he commissioned the National Bank Note Company to engrave and print 9,000 copies of the 3¢ private die medicine stamp (Scott RS56) shown here. It paid the federal excise tax on a 75¢ bottle of his miracle cure and, like all private die stamps, afforded a terrific opportunity to advertise at the same time.
More than a century later, USPS art director Carl T. Herrman created another stamp (Scott 3182f) from the image. It commemorates the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, passed in the wake of a public outcry caused by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, as part of the Celebrate the Century series. The Act regulated the hyperbolic claims made by earlier patent medicine producers such as Clarke, and required accurate labeling of ingredients.
Little is known about the ingredients in Hunt’s Remedy beyond the claim made on the back of Clarke’s trade card that it was “purely vegetable” and based on a recipe that descended from the original Dutch inhabitants of New Amsterdam. The secret formula was acquired by new owners in about 1881, and Hunt’s Remedy was apparently still being sold as late as 1908, when a Kansas State Board of Health Report described it as “a brown solution of bitter vegetable drugs, containing 17.2 per cent alcohol.”
Written by Daniel Piazza