When NHS chief Sir Simon Stevens made headlines final week by condemning a proliferation of “quacks, charlatans and cranks” spreading “dubious and dodgy” well being cures through social media, it felt like his phrases spoke to a really specific, 21st Century syndrome. After all, solely in 2020 may an A-list superstar run Goop, a wildly profitable wellness web site that advocates vaginal steaming.
But a glance by newspaper cuttings from eras previous recommend a special image. Recently, whereas leafing by tomorrow’s chip paper from earlier centuries, I observed the regularity and recklessness of adverts and advertorials that made outlandish well being claims. From get skinny fast schemes to eccentric mail-order cures, these inform us a lot about the enduring paranoia and sheer gullibility that apparently canine mankind – significantly throughout occasions of peace and prosperity, when society’s defences are down.
Back in the decadent 1900s, for occasion, the weight problems specialist “Slenderzoon” took out a collection of commercials dismissing train and weight-reduction plan as “quite out of date”. For the paltry sum of 1/2nd the firm promised to “cure obesity” with patented bathtub salts. Their “secret remedy for stoutness” allowed you to “eat as much as you like and exercise as little as you like”. The thought, that you might “restore the body to its former beauty” by stress-free in a bubble bathtub, could seem preposterous to us now, however is it any extra out-there than utilizing jade eggs to steadiness feminine hormones?
At the flip of the 20th century, Arthur Girvan, a “specialist in the increase of height”, revealed an advert promising so as to add as much as 5 inches to diminutive statures “without the use of appliances or drugs”. The provide even got here with £100 a reimbursement assure. Mr Girvan’s rigorously worded copy reveals little about his strategies, though presumably a set of stacked heels got here as normal.
Professor Prowse, one other peak specialist from Croydon (who knew the Edwardians had been so heightist?) features a before-and-after line drawing on his advert, that includes a dashing buyer in white tie and tails. Perhaps Girvan and Prowse are the forefathers of all these penis extension adverts that clog up your spam folder.
In different Edwardian newspapers, I discovered ‘cures’ for absurdly obscure illnesses equivalent to “dirty blood”, “bad legs”, “shabby skin” and “hairy face”. Some even included testimonials from apparently glad clients.
In 1 / 4 web page advert for Dr Cassell’s All British Remedy, Mrs Brickett from Camberwell reveals how she grew to become “very nervous and anaemic and such a martyr to indigestion that I was afraid to eat anything”. Poor Mrs Brickett was so weak she may barely transfer; and her flatulence was so unhealthy that it “would set my heart fluttering until I didn’t know what to do”. Thankfully, a course of Cassell’s “genuine and tested remedy for bodily weakness” appeared to do the trick: “strength came back to me and my nerves grew strong,” she recollects.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century the sale of medicines and associated providers noticed an analogous increase. In a paper titled ‘Medical promoting and belief in late Georgian England’, Hannah Barker from the School of Arts, Histories and Cultures, University of Manchester notes a surge in medical commercials all through what grew to become generally known as the “age of pills and potions”. Barker believes that many of the medicines on provide at the time amounted to quack cures, “likely to have produced little benefit for those who took them in physiological or pharmacological terms”. Desperation would possibly clarify the proliferation of such promoting. Medical salesmen tended to play on folks’s fears and insecurities, a lot as they do at present.
Go again additional nonetheless to the 17th century and you discover every kind of bizarre apothecaries. People affected by urine circulate issues had been inspired to imbibe processed millipedes floor up and dissolved in wine. For rabid canine bites, powdered burnt crab was purported to ease any disagreeable signs. Sparrow brains had been mentioned to “provoke lust” in these with flagging libidos. To my eyes, the audaciousness of the claims ring a bell with at present’s ‘various’ remedies, many of which stem both from historical Chinese practices or faddy California-style hippiedom.
It appears the more healthy society turns into, the extra prone we’re to virulent kinds of hypochondria. When illness, poverty and struggle now not plague us, opportunists are fast to take benefit of our complacency, dreaming up evermore weird circumstances solely they will repair. Watch US TV for any size of time and you come away pondering that even the mildest ache should be the precursor to some horrifying, life-threatening syndrome. It’s as if we can not perform correctly with out the looming risk of illness or the potential for bodily and psychological enchancment.
Writer Samuel Hynes’ description of the Edwardian period as a “leisurely time when women wore picture hats… and the rich were not ashamed to live conspicuously” mirrors our personal decadent, narcissistic tendencies. Perhaps it comes as little shock then, that these preening Edwardians had been simply as desirous about beauty surgical procedure as we’re at present.
In one advertorial I discovered, an unnamed doctor affords recommendation to “ladies who are thin, flat-chested and scraggy”. By taking an “ordinary Sargol tablet three times a day after meals” ladies may “enjoy a bust that will be the envy of all her sex”. When Sargol did not ship on its unlikely promise, silicon implants had been there to take up the slack.
Another advert, for Campbell and Son’s ‘Miracle Nose Machine’, made the contraption look suspiciously like a Hannibal Lector restraining machine. Quite how you’ll be able to appropriate an “ill-shaped nose without an operation” is anybody’s guess.
The re-emergence of quackery together with a worrying retreat from cause is an indication that we’re in the grip of a fin de siècle-style stasis. The Great War noticed an finish to Edwardian decadence and a dramatic decline in doubtful medical practices. Let’s hope it doesn’t take one other world struggle to convey us to our senses.
James Innes-Smith is the creator of The Seven Ages of Man – How to Live a Meaningful Life, out later this yr.
Follow him on Twitter: @jamesinnessmith