In 1880 Dr. R.I. McElree’s Wine of Cardui hit the pharmaceutical market as a menstrual relief product for women. Confident of its anticipated success, the developer of the product made an agreement with the purchasers of the alcohol-laced product that if they were not satisfied with its promised result that they would get their money back. Allegedly 6,500 ladies reported being cured of the “vapors” or “fallen womb syndrome” and the company immediately received an initial shipment of 7,000 bottles.
The Chattanooga Medicine Company was founded on Feb. 21, 1889, and started operations in an unpretentious two-story brick building on the muddy, unpaved Market Street in Chattanooga.
The principal founder of the company was former Union soldier from Illinois, Zeboim Cartter Patten. His fellow charter members were H. Clay Evans, Theodore G. Montague, Fred F. Wiehl and Lew Owen, who were all successful businessmen in other endeavors.
In 1882, Dr. McElree (he is also referred to as Reverend McElree in some writings) sold his product to the Chattanooga Medicine Company where it was originally marketed as “McElrees Cardui, The Woman’s Tonic.”
After prohibition passed in 1919-1920, the ingredients were listed as Blessed Thistle, Golden Seal, and 19 percent alcohol (38 proof). Surprisingly Congress “had passed” on Nov. 18, 1918, the temporary Wartime Prohibition Act, which banned the sale of alcoholic beverages having an alcohol content of greater than 1.28 percent (2.56 proof).
When the McElree’s Cardui was sold to the Medicine Company it flourished with sales and profits. In this era women were not the only ones that benefited from the magic elixir. Men had bouts of melancholy and women suffered from the vapors, which was described as “attacks of hysteria, mania, clinical depression, bipolar disorder, withdrawal syndrome, fainting, and mood swings of PMS” (ladies know what this is).
The main ingredients of this magical tonic were potassium (51.9 percent), salt (16 percent) and a varying amount of alcohol that fluctuated up to 23.3 percent alcohol (46.6 proof).
Prior to hitting the jackpot with Wine of Cardui, the Chattanooga Medicine Company’s best seller had been Black Draught laxative product but sales had fallen recently until Wine of Cardui came along and helped the company. Patents to the Black Draught had been bought by Mr. Patten in 1879.
Chattanooga often has been called the “Buckle of the Bible Belt” and the consumption of Wine of Cardui allowed the large teetotaling Baptists, Methodists, and other fundamental religious groups to take Cardui for “medicine” purposes and remain faithful to their religion.
Some of the advertising materials pertaining to the product are informative with glowing reports from female users:
Mrs. C.M. Ladd wrote: “I take great pleasure in telling you and affected women that I owe my life, my health and my happiness to Wine of Cardui. After my marriage my health broke down and, after having tried several physicians and several kinds of medicines, I was given up to die. I had heard of Wine of Cardui and decided to try it. I began to receive benefit at once, and now I am well and strong and our home has two fine little boys to make it bright and happy.”
However, the product did have its detractors. Over time it was analyzed by physicians and was the subject of lawsuits claiming it had no “medicinal value”. However, it was determined that non-alcoholic ingredients were in large enough quantities to really be medicinal and it was the 19 percent alcohol that had an effect on masking the symptoms and making the patients feel better.
In 1916, the Chattanooga Medicine Company, which made Wine of Cardui, brought a successful libel suit against the American Medical Association for its claims that the business was ‘built on deceit’ and that the product was ‘a vicious fraud.’ During an adjournment of the court in April 1916, in Chicago, company owner John A. Patten was seized with acute intestinal pain – he was rushed to the hospital and operated on, but unfortunately died.
At this unexpected incident, a personal suit brought by Patten lapsed, but he and his brother had also brought a partnership suit for $100,000 and, once the funeral was over, the case continued. The verdict, after the jury had been out a week, was in favor of the Chattanooga Medicine Company – it was awarded damages of one cent. Both sides could claim a victory of sorts. As the California State Journal of Medicine pointed out in August 1916, ‘it is permissible to suggest that the American Medical Association will hardly find its prestige diminished among good citizens by its opposition to the sale of proprietary medicines containing a marked percentage of alcohol’.
In reporter Mary Braswell’s “Looking Back” column in the Albany (Georgia) Herald dated April 27, 2014 she covers the subject of Wine of Cardui in an informative and humorous way, with several comments on the advertisements touting the production and “encouraging mothers to give their daughters, beginning at age 12, one dose of Wine of Cardui each morning to head off female problems….. such care was needed to help a girl develop into attractive womanhood and equip her for the duties of a wife and mother.” (May 1901)
Unfortunately, the present Drinking Under Age Statutes prohibit such consumption.
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