Twain For Teachers: Market Your Own Patent Medicine

Editor’s Note: This is the first in what we hope will be an ongoing series focused on adapting Twain to the classroom. If you have an assignment, activity, lesson plan, syllabus design, or pedagogical narrative which you would like to share with other teachers, please consider writing it up (500-1200 words) and sending it [email protected].

Now approaching its third year, the English elective “Writings of Mark Twain” at Seton Hall Preparatory School in West Orange, New Jersey explores the life, works, and world of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. This is one of very few secondary school courses that focus on a single author for an entire year, and apparently the only one in the United States devoted to Mark Twain, which is a shame, since, in the words of Dr. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, “Mark Twain connects with everything!”

The course is open to juniors and seniors and this past year, in addition to studying a wide range of his sketches, essays, letters, and short stories, we took a class trip to the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford and Skyped with several noted Mark Twain scholars. The novel I selected for this year was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Obviously Twain’s literary output is enormously varied and the choice of a novel is a delightful challenge. The junior year English requirement focuses on American literature and has featured Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for decades, so most students have heard of Tom Sawyer, but never read it. When we teach Huckleberry Finn, there is a noticeable frustration with the opening pages, as students realize they are reading a sequel without knowing what happened in the first installment. They are excited to read Tom Sawyer, especially for Huck’s first appearance, and to see how much the characters have changed.

I ask the students if they were ever jealous of another individual. Did they ever feel a teacher was personally determined to lower their grade? Did they have Saturday plans ruined by their parents who had daylong chores set aside for them? Did they ever get bored in Sunday school or by sermons in their houses of worship? Did they ever dig up their mothers’ rose beds looking for buried treasure? Were they ever told to stay away from a friend in their neighborhood or an abandoned house at the end of the street? Did they ever have to take a horribly foul-tasting medicine? Perhaps most of all, do they remember their first crush?

The answers are enthusiastically “Yes!” every year. They are ready to read and appreciate Tom Sawyer’s sense of lost freedom, his desire for adventure, outdoors and away from parents and teachers, and, most interestingly, they appreciate the seductive, but potentially deceptive allure of unfamiliar people and products.

In conjunction with the novel, students do a project called Market Your Own Patent Medicine using information given in Dr. R. Kent Rasmussen’s Mark Twain for Kids: His Life & Times (Chicago Review Press, 2004).

Even though students wish they could have spent their younger years outside with Tom and his friends, they are surprised to learn that there were not the medicines and antibiotics that we take for granted today. Indeed, Dr. Rasmussen emphasizes the continual threat of little known diseases when Clemens was young, as well as their origins, preventions, and treatments. 21st-century students are astonished that there was no Food and Drug Administration to test and approve medicines with names like “Perry Davis’s Pain-Killer,” “Hamlin’s Wizard Oil,” and “Dr. Parmenter’s Magnetic Oil.” Rasmussen explains that most of these so-called “patent medicines” had harmless ingredients. Because an otherwise healthy body has the ability to recover from most common illnesses on its own, “people who took the patent medicines thought that the medicine had cured them” and were “happy to write glowing endorsements” that were used by salesmen to “sell more of their useless ‘medicine’”.

To give the students a true hands-on approach to creating and marketing a patent medicine, I wanted them to support Aunt Polly’s steadfast conviction when she tries to get Tom out of his depression in Chapter 12.

Per Rasmussen, a more authoritative “doctor,” the young men had to prepare their medicines with mixing bowls, sugar, water, food coloring, clean bottles with lids, felt-tip pens, plain adhesive labels, and writing paper.

The key was then to think of an appealing name for their “cure-alls” and to write a one-page advertisement listing “the ailments that the medicine can ‘cure’ (such as colds, rheumatism, dandruff, or backaches).” The advertisement “should also include endorsements, which they can write as if they had come from satisfied users, that rave about the good things that the medicine has done for them.”

My class of 24 students was broken into six groups. Each group was expected to “sell” their patent medicine to the rest of the class, with every member required to contribute something to the sales pitch. No digital technology was to be used. They were to draw with their hands and use their most powerful tool: imagination.

When they began working, the boys were quietly reluctant and asked very few clarifying questions.

But, I think that what they said when it came time to “sell” would have caused Mark Twain’s eyes to twinkle with satisfaction. The boys surpassed my expectations. They gave speeches about what the medicines cured and created poster-size endorsements, many from Twain’s literary characters and, amusingly, from the Mark Twain scholars whom they had Skyped with earlier in the term. Several groups uniquely personalized their modern “ailments.” Instead of curing a cold, they focused on shyness, ugliness, or laziness, sometimes at the expense of other members of the group, who laughed heartedly and returned the favor.

From this academic activity students connect more directly with some of Tom Sawyer’s actions. They worked with their hands as well as their minds, conspired like a band of robbers, used humor as a persuasive tool, as Twain so often does, and were able to appreciate aspects of this period in their country’s history that they otherwise wouldn’t think about at all. If nothing else, they have a fuller appreciation of the healthcare that they benefit from today.

 John Pascal is an English teacher at Seton Hall Prep. He is a contributor to Mark Twain & Youth and a friend of CMTS who has been a Trouble Begins lecturer and Quarry Farm Fellow.