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The Magic Cafe Forum Index » » Step right up! » » Opinion please: Help edit some of my chapter on Medicine Shows (0 Likes) Printer Friendly Version

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Inner circle
Arlington, Virginia
2464 Posts

Profile of rossmacrae
Somehow I was moved to completely re-write my chapter on medicine shows (from my e-book "On the Midway") - and sometimes I'm not sure if the old miserable writing I'm replacing is any worse than what I'm typing today.

I'm offering the new opening paragraphs for comment - anybody want to offer any suggestions?


Entertainment in pre-radio, pre-television America was largely home-grown. There was no less "leisure time" than there is now, but it was distributed very differently within the average person's day and week. More daily time was devoted to work, but far less of the remainder was spent idly watching someone else entertain. When pre-Cable-TV Americans relaxed, they relaxed hard, and many of their recreational activities were homegrown instead of mass-produced. Music was played at home, and participatory activities like dances or competitions were locally-organized and community-sponsored.

That left an untapped market for entertainers who could offer something people couldn't provide for themselves. Such a large economic niche was sure to be filled, and the pressures of competition quickly and efficiently defined "traditional forms" out of the entertainments that enjoyed the most success. Urban areas with large and concentrated populations might be able to support entertainments appealing to segments of the public: literary lecturers, grand opera or Jewish theater, for instance. But there was also plenty of money to be made in rural areas by attractions with broad appeal which could be taken on the road inexpensively and performed almost anywhere.

Traveling attractions set up in vacant lots became familiar to the rural population. Where free time was scarce and necessarily rationed, or where culture discouraged frivolous amusements like dancing, religious or "moral and improving" entertainments might enjoy community approval, even sponsorship. Itinerant preachers would set up near the town church or in a vacant lot to hold revivals, which local churches could be convinced to promote, at which those in need of spiritual rearmament could hear the word of the Lord preached good and hard. They might even provide large tent-auditoriums and draw people from a considerable distance, holding "camp meetings." William Naylor, an assistant to medicine show operator "Doc Porter" in the 1880s, described such a "camp meeting" to the Federal Writers Project in 1938: "It looked like a pretty busy place; the natives from miles around had come, brought their families, their hound dogs and their rifles and were camped out in the grove around the meeting house. It was a big event and there at those camp meetings they went on a sort of 'emotional picnic.'" Likewise, "educational lectures" by a medicine "professor" might be seen as worthwhile (look up the history of the Chautauqua movement), and if a little entertainment came with them, the package as a whole might enjoy the approval and support of community elders.

Until quite recently, medicine was an arcane art at best, certainly not a science. Self-styled "experts" were the only available authorities, and many of them were simply traveling salesmen of dubious curative substances ("mountebanks", from the Italian monta in banco, "gets up on a platform"). Their wares were claimed to cure every possible complaint including imaginary ones — many common and vexing symptoms could be temporarily relieved by a simple liniment, and simple laxatives can "demonstrate" the relief of ailments invented by a persuasive speaker. The pitchman would be gone long before purchasers were killed by any real illnesses that were not curable by time and rest. These salesmen were viewed with a mixture of suspicion (since their wares were usually cooked up in the back of the salesman's wagon) and faith (since they seemed so confident of the efficacy of their theories and wares). To this day people in denial (whose beliefs are shaped largely by what they want to believe instead of by science) defend fringe medicine with fierce support, since more scholarly physicians offer no hope for many ailments and if "alternative medicine" can't help, there is no hope left.


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Profile of CJRichard
Looks good to me, Ross.

One thing I've learned about the early medicine salesmen is that despite the fact that the "cures," either laxatives or potions laden with alcohol and opium, might not have worked as claimed, they were in many cases less harmful than the methods practiced by the legitimate doctors of the day.

Bleeding, leeching, and even drilling holes in patients' heads were common practices among physicians. It's no wonder folks looked for less deadly cures.

"You know some of you are laughin', but there's people here tryin' to learn. . ." -Pop Haydn

"I know of no other art that proclaims itself 'easy to do.'" -Master Payne

Ezekiel the Green
Comedy Writer
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594 Posts

Profile of Comedy Writer

Who is this for? The first thing I note is that you use long sentances -- some variety and dare I say it -- some fragments would break up the big paragraphs.

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Bristol, Pa.
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Profile of Rev.moonchild
You losted me ..3 paragraphs before you ever said the word Medicine Show .

I read a lot on the subject in building my own Doc.Moonchild O'Time Medicine Show .And to tell you the truth I would have not finshed reading yours.
Don't get me wrong it is good but you go on to long before you get to the subject of the Medicine Pitch ..

Just my 2 cents
Follow the spirits of the wind and you will find your voice
<BR> Rev. Moonchild
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