In the nineteenth century, when even mainstream medical therapies included painful bloodletting and leeching, quack* medicine didn't seem quite so quacky.
If you wanted your hair to grow, you could don a Thermocap to send just the right amount of heat to your follicles. If your eyes were weak, you could apply the Neu-Vita Oculizer to massage your muscles and improve your eyesight. If you had a "female complaint"code for an unwanted pregnancyyou could down a tonic containing pennyroyal. If your problem was onanism, you could submit to a bracing ice water bath each night from a belt that circulated tubes between your legs. If, on the other hand, your problem was blocked sexual energy, you could purchase vibrators discreetly marketed as vaginal washers.
Most quack medicine provided generalized remedies for vague ills. Magnetism had scores of devotees who sported magnetic belts, combs, and brushesforerunners of today's magnetic bracelets. Vibration promised to shake out disease or stimulate and strengthen a weakened area of the body, and so patients at the John Harvey Kellogg's Battle Creek Sanitarium reclined in vibrating chairs and submitted to head massages with hand-held vibrators. But it was electropathy which sparked the most varied therapies and the most loyal following, and quacks marketed a vast array of devices whose electric shocks convinced users of their efficacy. There was even an electric chair!
Marie Curie's discovery of radium spawned a market in radioactive patent medicine, which lasted until 1930, when steel magnate Eben MacBurney Byers, who boasted he had drunk 1400 bottles of radium water in two years, died after his jaw fell off.
Previous example notwithstanding, most patent medicines were harmless, only pretending to contain Bengal tiger backbones, swamp root, or snake oil itself. Other nostrums, though, were quite perilous because their curative powers came from narcotics or stimulants. Even after the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed in 1906, such concoctions were legal as long as manufacturers disclosed their ingredients. Only after the act's revision in 1938 were misleading advertising claims curbed and such habit-forming additives as cocaine and alcohol banned in over-the-counter medication.
On the other hand, we have patent medicine to thank for ketchup, Coca-Cola, and 7-Up. Today's snake oil is tomorrow's junk food.
*The word "quack" derives from "quacksalver," an archaic word originating from Dutch (spelled kwakzalver in contemporary Dutch). It seems to have made its appearance in the English lexicon during the early 18th century.
This article was originally published in February 2008, and has been updated for the
January 2009 paperback release.
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