A look back in history…
I’ve been doing some genealogical research for my family, and spent the weekend browsing through some newspapers from the years 1900 to 1910.
I was mesmerized by news stories hinting at an approaching war in Europe—which would become World War I—and local fluff pieces such as “Pet dog is operated upon” and “Burglars lead police in exciting footrace.”
Of even more interest to me were the ads featuring “cures” for all sorts of afflictions: feebleness, skin eruptions, old sores (old, not cold), biliousness, dizziness, dyspepsia, palpitations, sluggish liver, kidney troubles, and more.
These ads made me laugh 😄 so I thought I would share some of my favorites.
“Constipation is a dangerous disease.” That’s right—scare the readers into buying your product!
“It cures indigestion, dyspepsia, biliousness, malaria, fever and ague.” It cures malaria? Really?
I looked up the ingredients of Dr. Jacob Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters. Or tried to. It was a “secret” blend of herbs—and whiskey. The elixir was a whopping 47% alcohol, and Dr. Hostetter recommended a “dose a day” for good health.
It got around those pesky prohibition laws, too.
“Bad blood manifests itself in various ways. With some it takes the form of skin diseases and eruptions, others become bilious and malarious, with sallow complexions, torpid livers, etc.”
“Nothing equals S.S.S. for bad blood. It is Nature’s own blood purifier, made from herbs, roots and barks. It goes into the circulation and removes every impurity or poison.”
In other words, it’s an old-fashioned detox!
I discovered one of my relatives died of “bilious fever.” Perhaps he should have tried a bottle of S.S.S.
Cupidene (love the name!) not only cures “Prostatitis” without an operation, but will “quickly cure you of…Lost Manhood, Insomnia, Pains in the Back…Pimples, Unfittness to Marry, Exhausting Drains…and Constipation.”
Exhausting Drains? That one has me stumped.
Here’s one for a medical device, Dr. Sanden’s Electric Belt, which promises to restore “your Manhood, if you have wasted it.”
Because, as we all know, “Your nervous system is the basis of all your Manly Vigor; so it comes that such troubles as Indigestion, Dyspepsia, Kidney Troubles, Palpitation of the Heart, etc., drain the vital powers and destroy the element of Manhood.”
Interesting to see that Low-T has been a concern for well over 100 years!
Again with the constipation! I think people in the early 20th century needed to eat more fiber rather than take more pills.
Carter’s Little Liver Pills were sold well into the second half of the 20th century, but the makers were forced to take the word “liver” out of name, as they had nothing to do with the liver.
Carter’s Pills were nothing more than a laxative, so it’s unlikely they would have done anything for that “Sick Headache.”
Buyers beware—marketers still use similar tricks
Modern consumers have more protections from the old-fashioned “snake oil” salesmen, but as you can tell from the ads above, many of the same tricks are still being used: exploiting fear and illness, while promising health and happiness.
Although the Food & Drug Administration closely regulates prescription drugs and their marketing, the rules surrounding most over-the-counter products are pretty loose.
Related post: What is the Quack Miranda Warning?
Ingredients have to be listed on labels, and advertisers can no longer claim to “cure” anything.
But there are sooo many products—supplements, herbal remedies, homeopathic remedies, etc.—that are marketed with promises that we’ll be healthier, happier, stronger, thinner, smarter, or prettier. Advertisers do this because they know these tricks still work, even after 100 years.
Be informed before buying! I’ve listed several good websites on my Resources page that will provide more safety information on supplements and herbal remedies.
Always ignore over-the-top promises and do your own research. Or subscribe to my blog; this is a topic I frequently write about.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of patent medicines and their crazy ingredients (cocaine, heroin, radium, to name a few), and the development of the FDA and professional medical examiners, check out The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum.