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McHistory: A Bloomington huckster's best-selling 'medicine' was Blackberry Balsam

C Wakefield.jpg
McLean County Museum of History
Cyrenius Wakefield of Bloomington made a fortune in the patent medicine business in the late 1800s.

Bloomington-Normal has a long and distinguished history of business entrepreneurship. One less than distinguished, but very successful, business had a continent-wide spread in the late 1800s.

Central Illinois huckster Cyrenius Wakefield created a popular nostrum called Wakefield’s Blackberry Balsam.

“The Twin Cities in the latter half of the 19th, and actually into the early 20th century, was a regional center for the manufacturing of patent medicines — what are commonly called snake oil,” said McLean County Museum of History Librarian Bill Kemp.

Wakefield was born in New York state and arrived in Bloomington in 1837. That was early in the development of the city. It had become the county seat in 1831. He tried farming in DeWitt County, then kept a dry goods store in Bloomington, and eventually entered the business of supplying remedies to the public.

He called himself a doctor, but had no formal training in medicine — not uncommon at the time. He eventually produced 11 different patent medicines, though his best-seller was "Wakefield's BlackBerry Balsam."

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McLean County Museum of History
Cyrenius Wakefield had a printing company to further sales of his Blackberry Balsam and other nostrums with advertising, account books, and almanacs.

“Once tried, always used,” stated advertisements.

Government regulation was non-existent at that time. The Pure Food and Drug Act did not pass until 1906.

“You could make promises even in some cases when the medicines could have detrimental effects to your customers,” said Kemp.

“Our first baby was taken very sick in the night, vomiting, and purging violently until he was completely exhausted. I got a bottle, gave the little boy about two-thirds of a bottle according to directions, and it broke up the fever. It was the lung fever he had. Your medicine is good. There is none better,” said an advertisement of the day.

Wakefield’s Balsam did have some good effects, said Kemp. The blackberry, bark, and root in the alcohol solution did have an astringent quality useful for some conditions.

“Of course, this is the patent medicine era when medicines must be a cure-all so in this case, Wakefield's BlackBerry Balsam also promised to alleviate deadly maladies such as dysentery,” said Kemp.

Wakefield also produced a "golden ointment" for burns, boils, chapped hands, and even hemorrhoids. Wakefield's Liver pills were also popular and Wakefield's Wine Bitters was known as the "Great Invigorator." Among these other product lines was Wakefield's Worm Destroyer.

“This is an age where even middle-class folks struggled with intestinal parasites due to spoiled food,” said Kemp.

Blackberry Balsam advert 1.jpg
McLean County Museum of History
The brand name for Wakefield's Blackberry Balsam lasted into the 1980s.

Many patent medicines were infused with alcohol.

“It was a way for church-going middle-class folk to imbibe in a socially acceptable manner,” said Kemp.

“Enclosed please find $1 For which send me Blackberry Balsam. My husband says it saved his life. It certainly acted like a charm last summer in a case of cholera Morbus,” said one advertisement.

By the 1880s, Wakefield had a well-established factory at the corner of East Washington and Evans streets, just east of downtown Bloomington. This is where the old Bloomington High School was located, since renovated into apartments. Also on the site was a printing company to supply the advertisements used to spread the name through ads in almanacs, account books, and other useful publications, said Kemp.

“The passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906 marked the beginning of the end for patent medicine manufacturers, though they do continue on for quite a while, and the brand name was later sold to another manufacturer. You could find it as late as the 1980s,” said Kemp.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.