Reading this article is guaranteed to cure hiccups, epilepsy, nausea, tinnitus and planters’ warts. Go ahead, try it, you will feel better. Claims like this sound ridiculous now but up to about a hundred years ago, before there were laws against such things, pretty well anybody could claim anything had therapeutic value. Their success depended not on how well the medicine or device worked, but on how convincingly they presented the claim.
Quack medicine as it is called abounded in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries reaching a peak in Victorian times with the advent of mass production and marketing. The more outlandish stuff was choked off in the early 20th century by consumer protection laws, regulation by the medical industry and a better educated public but the years of “anything goes” left a treasure trove for collectors.
The term quack is said to come from the old Dutch word quacksalver which literally means someone who boasts (quacks) about salves, or medicine. It is also thought to derive from the word quicksilver, another word for mercury. Early medical practitioners thought mercury had almost magical powers and it was used in numerous cures though we now know it is a poison. Some medical professionals use the term to describe anybody they don’t agree with but technically, a quack is someone who knowingly makes false medical claims.
In the mid 1700s Britain and France had virtually no laws governing medicine and London became the centre for what was known as patent medicines. Unregulated medicine companies grew very prosperous making outrageous claims – one even promised to cure sudden death - and many lasted over a hundred years. The most popular faux medicines, known as bitters, contained mostly alcohol with some spices so the patient usually felt better. Bitters were marketed as a digestive aid but most people knew what they were for; a cheap and discrete way to drink. They were actually bitter so around 1800 the English started mixing them with other spirits and sweeteners, which is the origin of the cocktail.
When the American Colonies broke away the new country banned imports from Britain and soon had its own very active patent medicine industry.
Bitters were expensive and, especially in the United States, elaborately packaged in colourful, shaped bottles, an opiate for modern collectors. Rare shapes and colours can fetch a few hundred dollars while more plain and common ones trade for just a few dollars, making it easy to start a collection. Just remember, the bottle has to have the word “bitters” on it to be considered a true bitters collectable and not just another medicine bottle.
Quack medicines were often sold by unscrupulous travelling salesmen who put on shows to draw a crowd. Some of these medicine shows became legendary. In France, German-born Franz Anton Mesmer touted his theory that diseases could be cured by magnets and he himself possessed “animal magnetism” so he just had to wave his hand over the patient to cure just about anything. His shows were so entrancing the term mesmerizing is still in use today. In the U.S. Clark Stanley billed himself as “The Rattlesnake King” and drew huge crowds by killing rattlesnakes during his shows pitching his elixir which he claimed was a mixture of oils from various snakes and was invented by an Indian medicine man. He was busted in 1917; analysis proved his potion was nothing but mineral oil, beef fat, spices and turpentine. From then on “snake oil salesman” became another term for quack.
Quacks are quick to capitalize whenever new discoveries come along. Electricity, a wonder that nobody really understood, was a godsend. Electric shock could be fatal but low currents delivered at a high voltage and frequency causes a pleasant, tingling sensation. By the late 1800s there were dozens of elaborate and expensive electrical devices on the market that promised to cure just about everything.
Violet Wands were the most popular, they were even used by doctors and started to appear for home use around 1905. They were essentially high frequency generators with two or more hollow glass wands filled with neon or argon gas (Geissler tubes) that were used to apply the current. The manufacturers claimed they were effective for a long list of ailments including cancer and “female hysteria”. By the 1940s laboratory tests proved the claims were bogus but the wands are still being made today – electricity does have some therapeutic value as a muscle relaxant. In 1990 the erotica industry started selling them as sex toys. A good product never dies.
Antique and vintage violet wands (up to 1942) came in lovely mahogany or oak containers and are very collectable today. Complete sets in working order can sell for about $300 to $700. New ones sell for about the same price, but not to collectors.
Sometimes it is very hard to separate quacks from misguided zealots. One very well-known and respected person fit both categories.
Dr. John Harvey Kellogg was chief of staff of the Battle Creek Sanitarium in the early 20th century. The sanitarium promoted a healthy lifestyle and Kellogg is thought by many to be the father of the modern health movement. Some aspects of his program such as exercise, deep breathing, vegetarian diet and yoga were a bit radical at the time but are now generally accepted, others have not been.
Corn flakes cereal, which he and his brother Will (who was the bookkeeper) developed for the diet program was his most spectacular success. Will founded what became the Kellogg Company to manufacture the flakes but added sugar to make them more palatable. John never spoke to him again.
John Kellogg believed disease was caused by bacteria in the colon so he invented a machine that flushed it out from both ends. It wasn’t popular. He also believed sex was bad for your health, to the point where he never consummated his own marriage. Masturbation was even worse and his diet program, starting with corn flakes in the morning, was designed to lower the sex drive. Kind of makes you want bacon and eggs again.
A lot of medical quackery is somewhat harmless, the worst aspect being that people are using it instead of getting proper medical attention, but some unsubstantiated cures are downright dangerous. The worst example has to be the widely held belief at the beginning of the 20th century in the curative powers of radiation.
People have been flocking to various natural springs for centuries because of their perceived health effects. When it was discovered in 1905 that many of these springs were slightly radioactive, it was immediately assumed that was the secret of their power. Even the U.S. Surgeon General endorsed it; the quacks got on board and started peddling devices for adding radon to your drinking water and applying radiation to all parts of the body to cure whatever ails you. The U.S. government helped protect consumers by legislating the minimum amount of radiation these products had to deliver.
Eben Ayres, a prominent industrialist and U.S. amateur golf champion boasted he consumed three bottles of radiated water a day. When he suddenly dropped dead in 1932 from radiation poisoning the craze abated, but it didn’t go away.
Some of the hot springs that started the whole thing still defiantly boast of their radioactivity, kind of like the restaurants that feature concoctions like triple bacon cheeseburgers fried in goose fat.
Quackery has been somewhat contained but it’s kept alive by conspiracy theorists and a segment of the population desperate for something, anything, to relieve the pain, keep death at bay or reverse baldness. The fact that medical practitioners are sometimes wrong and so-called quacks are sometimes right just adds fuel to the fire.
So maybe reading this article didn’t cure anything or make you feel better but the good news is; if you like collecting objects related to quack medicine, you’ll never be finished.