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Two Words for Halloween: Scary Clowns!

Cover of Merchant’s Gargling Oil Dream and Fate, Palmistry, &c. Songster, Lockport, NY, ca. 1880-1890s.

We’ve seen many advertising campaigns of yesteryear here at the Rubenstein Library, thanks to the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, and Marketing History.  Our History of Medicine Collections contain many examples of promotional items for patent medicines and related remedies.  And the Library holds an extensive collection of American songsters, or ephemeral booklets of song lyrics popular in the nineteenth century.  But never have we seen more terrifying examples of any of these genres than the Merchant’s Gargling Oil Songsters, which feature scary clowns on their covers.

We have the Merchant’s Gargling Oil Co. to thank for these frightful specimens.  The Hagley Museum and Library’s online exhibit on patent medicines tells us that the oil was “primarily used as a topical ointment to treat horses and other animals for burns, scalds, sprains, and bruises,” but could also be used to treat other odd ailments, from foot rot to mange.  The oil was not, apparently, gargled.

We know what you’re asking: why use scary clowns to promote veterinary medicine?  We presume that the clowns used to promote the Merchant’s Gargling Oil Liniment were not intentionally scary.   Perhaps they were not creepy at all to the nineteenth-century eye, but rather appeared amusing, colorful, and whimsical.  However, the fact that these particular songsters combined popular song lyrics with instruction on dream interpretation and fortune telling lends itself to the belief that there’s more to these clowns than meets the eye. Not to mention the owl on the shoulder of one of the clowns, and the deranged look in the eyes of the other.

Cover of Merchant’s Gargling Oil Songster, Lockport, NY, ca. 1880-1890s.

We wouldn’t want to meet either of these clowns on a dark Halloween night, but you’re welcome to come see them in person in the Library’s reading room… if you dare. Happy Halloween!

Post contributed by Will Hansen, Assistant Curator of Collections. 


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