Music and patent medicine : constructing and performing ideal bodies in the American medicine show




Binder, Laura Jean

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From its peak in the 1890s through its gradual decline in the first half of the twentieth century, the American medicine show occupied a significant place in American medical, advertising, and entertainment culture. With close ties to vaudeville, circuses, and Wild West shows, the American medicine show packaged its advertising messages among various performative and participatory entertainment forms. This study examines the role played by music in these medicine shows, highlighting the ways in which musical repertories intersect with nostrum advertising by constructing and marketing ideal health and ideal bodies. In particular, this study draws on disability theory as articulated by Rosemarie Garland Thomson and echoed by a host of new, emerging scholarship in music and dis/ability. While patent medicine companies of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century marketed their products through songbooks -- pamphlets which integrated brief advertising messages with popular song texts -- the dominant American medicine show of the mid-twentieth century shifted to marketing its products through recorded music. Though their media forms differ, the constructed ideal body of the early medicine show and mid-century medicine show remain consistent: young, male, and sexually potent. Similar insights into historically constructed ideal bodies comes from considering musical repertories produced in response to patent medicine consumption, in which individuals narrate their own experiences with socially charged health, illness, dis/ability, and embodiment.




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