Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Saturday, April 09, 2005

The days of No-To-Bac: Quackery looks quaint

Posted on Fri, Apr. 08, 2005

The days of No-To-Bac: Quackery looks quaint


Chicago Tribune

(KRT) - Can a Genuine German Electro Galvanic Belt really "positively cure" liver, stomach and kidney diseases; diseases of the blood, catarrh, skin diseases, lung troubles, rheumatism, female complaints, paralysis and nervous debility?

An advertisement for the product proudly proclaims that it can, with the always-convincing clincher, "Beware of Imitations."

Happily, the ad is not one of those endless TV commercials for new medical discoveries promising euphoria if you don't mind a few side effects; it's a quaint, amusing 1895 piece of poster art, which the Philadelphia Museum of Art has included in a quaint, amusing new exhibition called "Quack, Quack, Quack: The Sellers of Nostrums in Prints, Posters, Ephemera and Books."

And, to get back to the question, if the Genuine German Electro Galvanic Belt didn't quite do the trick, there were a few potions and devices back in the days before the Food and Drug Administration that actually were of some help.

"Certain things in moderation would work," said exhibition curator John Ittmann. "Hydrotherapy, when it came in as a kind of funny system, would work, and certainly you can't discount the placebo factor in some of this. If you think you're taking a pill that's going to help, it might help a bit."

If the quackery stuff appeared outlandish, one also had to consider the alternative.

"Going to a quack or an unorthodox, non-doctor type was often as good as going to a doctor," said Ittmann. "Many people went to both, to undertake the same treatment. You were at risk with both of them."

The German Electro Galvanic Belt, and such imitators as the Electropathic Belt ("Health and Integral Strength Imparted, and Impaired Vitality Restored"), at least gave one the feeling of something medical going on.

The belts (similar in appearance to what professional "wrestlers" nowadays sport) contained copper and zinc discs that were connected by wires and gave off a current that produced a mild burning sensation.

Rather a different sensation, and noise, was provided by the 1885 Health Jolting Chair, a levered device for women that "affords an exercise similar to that of a saddle horse."

While "German Medicine" enjoyed quite a vogue in the off-the-shelf and through-the-mail medicinal commerce of a century ago, it had a big rival in Indian stuff. There was Modoc Oil; Kickapoo Indian Sagwa "for blood, liver and the kidneys"; Hamlin's Wizard Oil, which contained camphor, ammonia, chloroform, sassafras, cloves and turpentine.

Then as now, there were potions to break your cigarette habit: Uncle Sam's Tobacco Cure, Hindoo Tobacco Habit Cure and No-To-Bac, the latter "Sold and Guaranteed by All Druggists."

Other medicines cured alcohol dependency and the opium habit, while others, of course, added addictions.

"Some contained a bit of cocaine," Ittmann said, "enough to cause addiction. So many things were sold in a pharmaceutical format. Only later did people realize that this was something harmful."

Though radio and television did not yet exist, they did have jingles for this stuff in the form of piano sheet music, such as that for "The Keeley Cure" for alcoholism billed as an "Irish Comic Song." The ditty eventually found its way into music halls.

Drawn mostly from the unique collection of William Helfand, noted collector of Arts Medica, the 75 pieces in the exhibition include some excellent art: among them a stirring Maxfield Parrish poster for No-To-Bac and works by Honore Daumier and Jules Cheret.

Indeed, I mentioned that some of the drawings in the show looked downright Hogarthian, to which Ittmann replied, "Those are Hogarth."

As with the fiendishly satirical Daumier, William Hogarth's works make high fun of quackery and its all too willing victims, as in his 1734 engraving "A Harlot's Progress: Expires (after taking pills for venereal disease) While the Doctors are Quarreling."

All in all, except for the clothing depicted and prices, I'm a little hard put to find much difference between this stuff and what they shovel at us_especially us oldsters_over the airwaves every night.

I suppose the main difference is that while the old patent medicines promise to cure liver, stomach and kidney diseases; diseases of the blood, catarrh, skin diseases, lung troubles, rheumatism, female complaints, paralysis and nervous debility, modern-day drugs list those as possible side effects.

Talk to your doctor.


(Michael Kilian is a lifestyle columnist for The Chicago Tribune. Write to him at the Chicago Tribune Washington Bureau, 1325 G St. NW, Suite 200, Washington, D.C., 20005.)


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