Hidden in Plain Sight:
The Material World of Early Springfield


Swaim's panacea

c. 1820-1840
Recovered from Edwards Place privy
Collection of the Illinois State Museum

William Swaim was a Philadelphia bookbinder-turned-druggist and one of America's earliest purveyors of patent medicines. His "panacea" claimed to cure scrofula, general debility, white swelling, diseases of the liver and skin, diseases arising from impurity in the blood, and diseases related to exposure to mercury.

Most citizens of antebellum Springfield regularly turned to “patent” medicines to relieve their occasional maladies. These were proprietary formulas manufactured on the East Coast and marketed nationally through newspaper and magazine ads. Although they made grandiose claims about their restorative properties, these “medicines” were largely ineffectual and occasionally dangerous. Ingredients could include anything from alcohol to opium to cocaine to mercury.