• “Eye Water” Stamps Helped Fund the Union Army

    Nov. 02, 2012

    The year 2011 marked the 150th anniversary of the United States’ Civil War, which ignited on April 12, 1861, when the Confederate army attacked the U.S. at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The war took a huge toll in lives and money. To help fund the Union Army, the U.S. Congress passed the Tax Act of 1862, which required a wide variety of manufacturing and service businesses to affix stamps to their wares. Companies got a discount if they made the stamps themselves rather than obtaining them from the government. Over 300 companies created unique stamps, resulting in what today would be called “branding opportunities” for their products. About 120 of these companies were manufacturers of over-the-counter medications known as patent medicines.

    Civil War Era Eye Salve Revenue Stamp
    Dr. T. L. Stephen's Celebrated Chemical Eye Salve revenue stamp, 1862. Gift of Andrew Ferry, MD

    Patent medicine was a huge industry, and the government saw a way to profit from its popularity. Patent medicine for the eyes, in the form of “eye water” and “eye salves” of questionable efficacy, was no exception. Revenue stamps did so well, in fact, that the law stood long after the Civil War was over. The Proprietary Medicine Manufacturers and Dealers Association finally lobbied Congress to repeal the tax in 1883. Of the 8 billion stamps in use, about 5.3 billion were printed by companies.

    The American Civil War ended 1865 when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to U.S. General Ulysses S. Grant. Commemorative activities will continue in the U.S. through 2015.

    For more information about ophthalmic patent medicines visit the To Fool the Eye, an exhibit of the Museum of Vision.