Cure-Alls & Cure-Naughts: 6 Vintage Ads & Pamphlets for Medical Remedies Sold in Ontario
"When the remedy you have offered only increases the disease, then leave him who will not be cured, and tell your story to someone who seeks the truth." – translation of Rumi, 13th-century poet
This quote made me think of medical cure-alls — dubious remedies that claim to fix almost any ailment. You can find vintage advertisements for such remedies on Digital Archive Ontario, a historical resource of digitized items from Toronto Public Library. Several of these items market too-good-to-be-true products that used to be sold in Ontario. It's a dangerous practice and it still happens today.
For anyone interested in the history of medicine or misinformation, here are six items from our archives that may at least cure your curiosity. Which were genuinely trying to reduce human suffering? Which ones were not?
1. Moore's Lightening Wizard Oil
"Lightening Wizard Oil" elixir sounds like a concoction from the fantastical world of Harry Potter. This ad promises it "Will Cure" many illnesses including bloody flux, ague, deafness, piles, frosted feet, chilblains and pain in the backside... in ten minutes! The liquid is said to use chemical and electrical powers to enable healing. The fine print does note that, "We do not propose to cure every disease," if the medication fails to work.
Though manufactured in Chicago, the document names "Geo. Stewart" (George Stewart) as "Sole Agent for Ontario."
2. Chase's Receipts or Information for Everybody
For those who wanted to prepare their own medication instead of buying them from a druggist, Chase's Receipts for Everybody offers a recipe book. This detailed list of remedies geared itself towards many, many professions: merchants, grocers, shopkeepers, physicians, druggists, tanners, shoemakers, harnessmakers, painters, jewellers, blacksmiths, tinners, gunsmiths and so, yes, even more.
Recipes include relieving typhoid fever (page 16), scarlet fever (page ib), uterine hemorrhages (page ib), cure cancer (page ib), periodontal headache (page ib) and a disinfectant for room, meat, and fish (page ib). As an example, the directions the book gives for treating a fever is on page 15: "A strong tea of wild cherry bark makes the best substitute for the snake root tea, and especially if mercury has been previously used in the case, and if it has, it is best to continue the cherry bark tea until the patient is entirely recovered." (WebMD currently still lists Wild Cherry tree for similar ailments and yet notes, "More evidence is needed to rate the effectiveness of wild cherry for these uses.")
3. Humphreys' Specific Homeopathic Medicines
Homeopathy remains popular today though many studies debunk its efficacy. Humphrey's Specific Homeopathic Medicines emphasizes its, "Mild Power Cures." According to those that believe in the practice, the mildness reduces the chance of the chemicals negatively affecting the patient. The marketing and selling of "Harmless Sugar Pills" on page two is akin to prescribing a placebo. It boldly promises to help cure asthma, dysentery and epilepsy is happily promoted here.
4. Perry Davis Vegetable Pain Killer
This etched pamphlet provides a plethora of products by D. L. (Davis & Lawrence). It includes an emulsion which, "Will Make You Fat!", an ointment that will treat, "Obstinate Ulcers . . . or Eruptive Diseases," and lozenges containing sulphur that it claims can eliminate scrofulous, blotches and blackheads. The price is listed as 25 cents, or about eight dollars according to an inflation calculator.
5. Norman's Electro-Curative Institution
This page advertises a location in Toronto with "appliances" to treat ailments ranging from indigestion to "Loss of Vital Power from Whatever Cause". Among its devices, is what's illustrated here: Norman's Electro-Curative belt. You can also view a promotion fan for the same institution.
6. Electric Beans
Published by an Ottawa company, the cover of this pamphlet advertises "Electric Beans." The name of the product has not aged well. It recalls the magic beans in The Jack and Beanstalk fairy tale (which, as it happens, we have digitized copies of on Digital Archive Ontario). The ad invites skeptical readers to "write for a sample and booklet of testimonials." This item also includes items in French.
Browse hundreds of historical items on the topic of medicine on Digital Archive Ontario.