Back in the olden days, folks didn’t really have modern medicine as we do now—they had bloodletting, alcohol and narcotics. They staked their belief in snake oil salesmen. X-ray machines weren’t even invented until the late 1800s—if people got sick with anything potentially fatal before the 20th century, they were essentially toast because there weren’t the technological advances available to save them.
Today, we’re fortunate in modern medicine’s ability to make better sense of disease—but this has really only been the case within the last hundred years or so. Before then, the medical community had some bizarre ideas about how to treat various common ailments, and here are 15 of the most fascinating vintage ads for some such strange (and often downright dangerous!) medical cures from yesteryear:
15 Treat pain with cocaine!
Cocaine was a common ingredient in many medicines a hundred or so years ago. Cocaine, in fact, had been used for hundreds of years medicinally to treat numerous bodily ailments. It was also noted to have a positive effect on the psyche—inducing euphoria and revitalizing depressed patients and so was widely recognized as a very effective pick-me-up. Cocaine was considered to be a safe, all-purpose wonder medicine around the turn of the 20th century—and was initially thought to not be addicting and seemed to have no negative side effects (oh, how wrong those scientists were!). In fact, cocaine was considered so safe that it was frequently the main ingredient in children’s medicines—such as in these “Cocaine Toothache Drops.”
14 Speed kills! (And slims! And keeps you up all night!)
Well, this ad easily targets the stereotyped '50s housewife demographic (even though it refers to the year 1940) because it promotes the idea that housework is the wife’s domain—and here we have a Marcel-wavy-haired hausfrau evidently popping uppers to keep on top of her chores. Picture this woman flicking through her latest issue of Good Housekeeping and coming across this ad declaring her to be only a few amphetamine “granules” away from slimming and getting her housework done “surely and safely…This magic powder does more than disperse unwanted fat it purifies and enriches the blood, it tones up the entire system and makes you feel better in health in every way. It even gives you the energy to carry on working throughout the night,” (our italics). Hmm.
13 Hair of the dog?
Better than whiskey! But is it cheaper? This Aspironal ad has it right here in black and white print that you should just stand at the druggist’s counter as you take this “delightful elixir” to ensure it kicks in within two minutes or you’ll get a refund. Doing the Aspironal two-teaspoon shot at the pharmacist’s counter challenge is the “in” thing to do since—as the ad says—“Everybody’s doing it.” According to its label, Aspironal doesn’t “contain any opiates” but it is 10 percent alcohol. A-ha! Found the active ingredient. How’s Aspironal better than whiskey again?
They also advise customers to bring the “remainder of the bottle home to your wife and children, for Aspironal is by far the safest and most effective…cough and cold remedy.”
12 Wolcott's Instant (and apparently all-purpose) Pain Annihilator
This very colorful and beautifully metaphorical ad for Wolcott’s Instant Pain Annihilator is circa 1863. While the concoction’s precise medicinal ingredients are forever lost, ethyl alcohol and opium were known to be a part of Wolcott’s narcotic stew, and it’s fairly safe to assume that whatever it contained was transformative enough for this agitated top “before” guy beset by demons and creepy skeletons who are poking and prodding him and using his long bristly beard like a rope ladder to get up in his face to turn into the bottom guy who’s all chill (clutching his Wolcott’s) with the demons, snakes and body parts bedeviling him being sucked into a fiery red cloud. This product, as advertised, offered relief from conditions such as neuralgia, headache, weak nerves and toothache.
11 The smoking cure for asthmatics
Only in the twisted 1800s would smoking cigarettes be proposed as a cure for asthma. It just seems so wrong to us today and goes against everything we currently know about the negative effects of smoking. The public didn’t really become aware that smoking cigarettes was bad for you until around the 1950s, believe it or not. Smoking as a method of medication delivery actually makes sense with respect to the prevalent belief at the time back in the Victorian age that as you inhale the smoke, the lungs will have an opportunity to absorb whatever medicine is present in the cigarettes before exhaling. To add legitimacy to their promotion, this smoking cure is “universally recommended by the most eminent physicians and medical authors.”
10 Cigarettes were once doctor-recommended
Before the medical community figured out that smoking was actually bad for your health (and not an aid for your health, as some thought), everyone smoked. Imagine a time when you were allowed to smoke wherever you wanted (because this once was the case): you could smoke at your desk at work, in malls and on airplanes. People smoked in restaurants—and even while waiting at the doctor’s office. Doctors smoked, too. Some still do, of course, but now with the dangers of smoking so widely known, it seems stupid for doctors or any other health professional to light up. However, back in the day, not only were many regular smokers—some even appeared in cigarette advertisements—such as these vintage ads for Viceroys and Camel cigarettes.
9 What does Perry Davis know about pain?
Is that old man at the chalkboard in this ad Perry Davis himself? If so, than Perry looks like he’s already had something of a long and perhaps relatively eventful life, since he appears kind of worn out—with grey hair and a receding hairline—and here he is, looking like a wise old wizard disguised as a regular guy in 18th century street clothes who has come out from behind his wizardly curtain to plug his noxious narcotic brew containing the common (for the time) ingredients of opiates and ethyl alcohol which, according to the advertising text quoted here: “is not a cure-all, but is just the thing needed in case of the slight ailments and accidents which occasionally afflict us all.”
8 Pink pills for pale people
Dr. Williams promoted his product well, coining the catchy phrase “pink pills for pale people” that’s easy to remember and sticks in the mind. According to Wikipedia, the medicinal compounds in these pills are ferrous sulfate and magnesium sulfate (no opiates). You’d think you’d only be in need of this product if you happened to be a pale person just from looking at this advertisement, but in addition to restoring that rosy glow to your complexion via some kind of internal salt flush (from sulfates), these pills were also supposed to help soothe symptoms of nervous conditions such as tics and twitching, heart palpitations, nervous headaches and were advertised (as per advertising copy quoted in Wikipedia) as providing relief from “all forms of weakness in the male and female.”
7 'Snake oil' isn't just a figure of speech...
Snake oil was actually a thing and some guy from the 1800s actually invented and sold it. A Texas man named Clark Stanley was the original "snake oil salesman," and he was a self-taught physician/fraudulent witch doctor/hustler who claimed he learned ancient secrets about the benefits of snake oil from medicine men in remote desert tribes back in his traveling cowboy days. Mr. Stanley peddled his potion as some kind of magic cure-all (his "snake oil" apparently mostly contained mineral oil—with no snakes whatsoever involved) at sales expositions around the U.S. As you can read from this advertisement, the claims of what this product can do are rather vague: “Is good for anything a liniment ought to be good for.”
6 A donut a day keeps the doctor away
Now here’s a health movement we can get behind! We’ll get our vitamins from donuts! Sign us up! Look at these rosy-cheeked, vibrantly healthy cartoon children pictured in this ad. Who needs leafy greens and whole grains when a deep fried and sweet glazed pastry will do the trick? (By the way, do kids of this age really need more “pep and vigor” than they probably already have?)
This was actually an advertisement for a proposed product that got shot down back in 1941. The makers of these donuts wanted to call their product “Vitamin Donuts” because they were made with a flour fortified with vitamin B1, but the governing FDA body at the time nixed the product because its name was misleading.
5 Fatoff: a "delightful" cure for obesity
So this “corpulency reducer” would probably fly off the shelves if on sale today based on these claims. That said, being slim wasn’t as sought after back in 1911 when this ad was made—as at around the turn of the century, a little more flesh on the bones was considered healthy and attractive. This Fatoff sounds like a wonder product, though, promising marvelous transformations and a “normal figure in 30 treatments” and “size desired in 60 treatments.” What if you use too much of this stuff? Would you disappear completely? All you have to do is apply it to your muffin tops, saddlebags and love handles to lose your voluptuous curves. The small print reads: “no odor, grease, dieting, gymnastics, medicines or big fees.”
4 Need more chill? Try Grove's Chill Tonic
Malaria isn’t really a widespread disease in North America these days, but it must have been back in 1878 when Edwin Wiley Grove went about disguising the unpleasant taste of quinine (used to treat malaria and other conditions) with syrup in his chemist’s laboratory to make it more palatable for children and so Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic was born and Mr. Grove became a very rich man.
Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic didn’t contain the usual suspects of opiates or alcohol (since its maker was a Prohibitionist). It was standard issue for British soldiers entering mosquito-dense areas and by the 1890s, it was outselling Coca-Cola. Grove’s Tasteless Chill Tonic continued to be manufactured until at least 1957, when Grove Laboratories was purchased by pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers.
3 Home electroshock therapy?
This ad sounds like its promoting home electroshock therapy, but it’s not. It’s actually an advertisement from the year 1893 for a magnetized corset that claims to be something of a cure-all (didn’t all medicines claim to be cure-alls back then?) This product was intended to promote “new life and vigor” in those delicate Victorian flowers with weak constitutions and was specifically meant to address conditions such as: “nervousness, debility, sleeplessness, rheumatism, sciatica, lumbago [back pain], torpid, liver, organic weakness and kindred ailments.” What a laundry list of vague conditions—especially the kindred ailments—meaning all diseases that affect humankind? Also, it cures hysteria—hysteria being the catch-all term used to describe any so-called overly-emotional, hormonally-challenged Victorian era drama queen.
2 Never mind Rogaine, just vacuum your head!
So, this is an advertisement for a hair appliance circa 1906 that looks much like those retro overhead dryers they use at hair salons. This vacuum cap was intended to promote circulation by sucking fresh blood to the scalp and stimulating hair growth. Be forewarned, this contraption doesn’t cure male pattern baldness—hence this disclaimer in the fine print: “We have demonstrated beyond all question that in cases where the life principle is not destroyed a reasonable use of our invention, ‘The Evans Vacuum Cap’ will develop a natural and permanent growth of hair…” So in other words, after those 60 days are up and you write Evans Co. for your refund, they’ll surely blame your hair growth’s failure on your scalp’s “life principle” having been “destroyed.”
1 Dr. Swift to the rescue!
Female “hysteria” was an epidemic in the Victorian era, apparently, as evidenced by all the over-the-counter opioid formulations which quacks of the time peddled to desperate, repressed Victorians to treat their (evidently rampant) nervous conditions—hard core potions were freely available over-the-counter from your trusted, monocle-wearing local chemist.
And if hard drugs weren’t your thing, there’s always “the magic power of fine gentle massage therapy,” which is what Dr. Swift (circa 1897) of Cerro Gordo, California, practiced. Dr. Swift made house calls, and though he might have carried a black bag for show, Dr. Swift exclusively used his hands to administer his treatments to the “hopeless” and “incurable” and generally treated female patients presenting with any vague agitations from their (*ahem!*) “midquarters from neck to knee.”