I’m currently off in South Dakota with the family, looking at dinosaur stuff and chasing the wild jackalope. I’ll be back Thursday, but to tide my throng of fans, here are a few Chicago-based 1800s quack cure ads from a book I bought at Wall Drug, along with brief commentary on if they would kill you.
Claims: “… a positive, permanent cure for CATARRH, CONSUMPTION, ASTHMA, BRONCHITIS, LA GRIPPE and HAY FEVER” or as we call them today: excessive snot, tuberculosis, asthma, bronchitis, the flu and allergies.
Will it kill you? Ozone is a toxic gas that the EPA warns the nation never to inhale. It has been linked to higher mortality as a pollutant and caused at least one death through a gas embolism when used as a medical treatment. It causes chest pain, coughing, shortness of breath, throat irritation, worsens respiratory diseases (they name asthma as an example) and compromises your body’s ability to fight infection.
The oxygen we breathe is O2 and ozone is O3, so it sounds like a super-charged bit of health, but by that logic, you might as well reach for a glass of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) when you’re looking for a cool drink of H2O. Those little subscripts matter.
So pure ozone can potentially kill you whether you’re gulping it from an 1800s sippy cup or from one of the hundreds of ozone generators and “air purifiers” making the same health-and-vitality claims on the market today.
Product: Homeopathic & Biochemic Medicines
Claims: “Sickness in the Family.” So I guess on this one, a score for truth in advertising.
Will it kill you? The first of these “Homeopathic & Biochemic Medicines” listed in the kits in the 1885 edition of Halsey’s Homeopathic Guide is aconite, a flowering plant whose nicknames include Wolfsbane, Blue Rocket, Devil’s Helmet and Queen of Poisons. The list of meds contained in this kit goes on to include arsenic, mercury, sulfur and chamomile for some reason. Kill ya dead. Except for the chamomile, which makes a lovely hot beverage.
I mean, it would kill you dead if this weren’t a homeopathy kit. I don’t want to get too much into the philosophy of homeopathy other than to say it’s ridiculous nonsense pulled upon the gullible by the gullible. They take poisons and water them down so much they’re not poisonous anymore, based on the idea that the lower the dose, the more effective the treatment.
Imagine dripping a single droplet of alcohol into a glass of water, pouring half the glass out, refilling it with water, pouring half that glass out, refilling it with water, repeating the process a few hundred times and then finally drinking the glass of liquid expecting to get drunker than you ever have before.
Homeopathy’s like that, except you have to hit the glass with a piece of leather each time you refill it or else the water won’t remember what your alcohol was like. It’s crap and everything in this silly 1800s kit is still sold the same exact way for the same exact uses today.
Product: Magnetic Belt and Magnetic Foot Batteries
Claims: Belt: “One of the grandest appliances ever made for Lame Back, Weakness of Spine, and any disease of the Kidneys.” Foot Batteries: “These FOOT BATTERIES remove all aches and pains from feet and limbs, cause a feeling of new life and vigor equal to the days of youth.”
Will it kill you? I’ll be honest here. I have no idea what’s going on with Dr. Thatcher’s Magnetic Shields here. It doesn’t look lethal but if the Journal of the American Medical Association takes time out of an article about a man selling home enema kits and eyeball suction cups to call you a fraud, you might want to reconsider if your weird magno-belt is truly “the crowning triumph of the nineteenth century.”
Product: Dr. Horne’s Electric Belt
Claims: “POSITIVELY CURES RHEUMATISM, NEURALGIA, LIVER, KIDNEYS and exhausting nervous DISEASES of both sexes. 100 degrees of Electricity.”
Will it kill you? I have no idea, but I would like to take this opportunity to say the history of Pulvermacher’s chain and associated knockoffs like Dr. Horne’s here is hilarious and detailed.
Also, that little loop on the front is the electric suspensory that came free with men’s belts. It’s what you think it was, and the most popular treatment for impotence from the 1890s to the 1920s.
Before we tut tut our forebears too heavily, before we shake our head at the past and think about how clever we are with health today, remember one thing.
This is the only product in this story you can’t buy today.