We’ve scoured The Archive to bring you some of the most dubious medical remedies from our newspapers. From magic cure-all pills to blood-letting, from cigarettes to liquorice, we take a look at some of the most bizarre cures from the last two centuries, using pages taken from the British Newspaper Archive.
It might go without saying, but we thought we better say it anyway – please do not try any of these cures at home!
Top tip: using a simple search term like ‘medicine’ or ‘remedy’ can bring you a wealth of fascinating results.
In a time before advertising standards and strict regulations, newspaper pages from the 1800s and early 1900s groan with advertisements for purported wonder cures – the pills that claimed to fix every type of malady, from consumption to indigestion, from depression to vertigo.
No language can convey an adequate idea of the immediate and miraculous change produced by making use of these Pills in the diseased, debilitated, and shattered nervous system. To print all the letters of thanks received from different individuals, describing the great benefit received by making use of this medicine, would fill a book larger than the Bible!
So what could you expect from this medicine, marketed as ‘The Medical Wonder of the Nineteenth Century?’ The advertising copy describes how:
In all diseases of the stomach and digestive organs, IT NEVER FAILS, and by setting the stomach to rights, all the other functions of the body are sure to be set to rights also. In cases of Headache, Vertigo, Pains in the Face and Nerves, and all the varied train of Nervous Affections, these pills perform a cure in an astonishing short space of time. They also remove Depression, Excitement, Restlessness, Loss of Memory, Want of Sleep, a Dislike to Society, Incapacity for Business, Confusion, Giddiness, Blood in the Head, Melancholy, Mental Debility, Hysteria, Wretchedness &c. They increase and restore the Appetite, Strengthen the Emaciated, Renew the Health of those who have destroyed it, causes cheerfulness and prolonged life to the latest possible period of existence.
And all this could be yours for just over a shilling, sold in Pontefract by chemists Wilton and Priestlay, and bookseller Mr. Kidd.
Meanwhile, the Nuneaton Advertiser in 1883 was showcasing ‘Piso’s Cure for Consumption.’ This cough syrup had allegedly ‘cured thousands’ from the ravages of that particular disease, which only began to be successfully vaccinated against in 1921.
Another preventer of consumption was advertised by the St James’s Gazette in 1899 – Munyon’s Inhaler. ‘So simple a child can use it,’ it promised to cure ‘Coughs, Colds, Hay Fever, Catarrh, Asthma and Bronchitis,’ as well as preventing consumption and killing ‘all Disease Germs.’
‘Nourishing, Strengthening, Refreshing’
Perhaps one of the most famous cure-alls of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was Vin Mariani. Marketed as a French tonic wine, Toronto Saturday Night in 1898 describes how it is ‘recommended by all who try it,’ having solicited ‘written endorsements from 8,000 doctors.’
Indeed, the same newspaper in 1902 reports how His Holiness Pope Leo XIII had awarded a ‘gold medal in recognition of the benefits from Vin Mariani,’ including the following letter from Cardinal Rampolla:
It has pleased His Holiness to instruct me to transmit in his august name his thanks to Monsieur Mariani and to testify again in a special manner his gratitude. His Holiness has even deigned to offer Monsieur Mariani a Gold Medal bearing his venerable image.
It was not just the Pope who approved; the same advertisement details how Vin Mariani was consumed by ‘the Czar and Czarina of Russia, Queen Alexandra of England and King Oscar of Norway and Sweden.’
But what were the effects of this ‘nourishing, strengthening, refreshing’ wonder drink? Physicians were apt to relate how Vin Mariani was:
The only Tonic Stimulant without unpleasant reaction. Hasn’t its equal in La Grippe, Malaria, Weak Blood, Consumption, Throat, Lung, and Stomach Troubles, Overwork, Nervous Troubles and General Debility. Aids Digestion, Removes Fatigue and Improves the Appetite. Particularly adapted for Children. Has the remarkable effect of strengthening the Voice…Unequalled for La Grippe.
So from treating la grippe (flu) to strengthening the voice (as attested to by Albani in a 1898 advertisement), Vin Mariani was poised to be another great cure-all, patronised by royalty, the clergy, and other celebrities of the day.
But the secret behind this popular drink made all its medicinal benefits somewhat dubious. A mix of Bordeaux wine and coca leaves, the ethanol in the alcohol ended up extracting cocaine from the coca leaves. So one can imagine the apparently miraculous effects it had upon its drinkers! Vin Mariani went on, however, to inspire the makers of Coca Cola, and the original recipe was lost after its creator Angelo Mariani died in 1914.
Blood-Letting and Blood-Making
So perhaps you weren’t willing to put your faith in a cure-all remedy like Vin Mariani or Munyon’s Inhaler. You could try blood-letting, which was still practiced well into the nineteenth century. Indeed, in 1874 the North British Agriculturist asked ‘Will Blood-Letting Again Become Popular?’
It cites the experiences of Sir James Paget, who addressed a Norwich meeting of the British Medical Association and described:
…how he was wont to bleed a score of people on a market day for various aches and pains, for imaginary evils, for securing better health; and he further declared that he did not know that any bad effects resulted from the practice.
Meanwhile one Dr. B.W. Richardson reported that a man suffering unconsciousness due to sunstroke was ‘promptly brought round by the drawing of a quart of blood,’ whilst ‘a woman stunned by a fall was similarly restored.’ There were also reports of a ‘gentleman suffering from influenza’ who had been brought ‘out of danger’ by being bled.
The Edinburgh Evening News describes how blood-letting became a ‘craze‘ in the 1600s, finding particular favour in France. King Louis XIII was ‘bled 47 times in one year by his physician Bouvard,’ whilst in the next king’s reign one Gui Patin ‘boasted of his exploits with the lancet:’
He ordered his wife to be bled 12 times in the course of a pneumonia, and his son 20 times during a continued fever. His fanatical belief in blood-letting led him to spare neither age nor sex. He bled an infant three days old, and a child of seven years 13 times in a fortnight.
And the practice continued well into the 1800s. The Boston Guardian in 1933 recalls how a century ago, in 1833, France imported 41 million leeches for the purposes of blood-letting, and they were ‘capable of abstracting more than 20 million ounces of human blood.’
Furthermore, in 1901 the Dundee Evening Post was asking ‘Is Blood Really Necessary?’ in response to the efficacy of saline as a treatment. However, the craze for blood-letting eventually bled out. The Southern Reporter and Cork Commercial Courier in 1861 relates how Dr. Marshall Hall was ‘the first person who arrested the slaughtering practice of blood-letting’ with the publication of his book The Loss of Blood in 1825. Marshall Hall purportedly called the lancet ‘a minute instrument of mighty mischief.’
Meanwhile, also in 1901, Dr. Slater’s Tonic Blood-Making Tablets were being advertised in the pages of the Western Mail. They promised to ‘transform the poor, watery blood you may have into blood rich in health-giving qualities.’ So instead of losing blood to provoke a cure, these tablets represented ‘so much pure blood introduced into the body.’
Dr. Slater’s tablets promised ‘to transform a weak, wan, debilitated woman or man into a rosy-faced, vigorous, and healthy person,’ being of particular benefit to ‘weak, weary, worn-out women.’
Cigarettes and Alcohol
Historical cures were to be found in the strangest of places, and certainly not in items with which we would associate any health benefits today. Foremost amongst these are the benefits that smoking was believed to have for those who suffered from respiratory problems like asthma.
A drop of ‘Vapex’ placed on the middle of your cigarette brings antiseptic vapours into direct contact with the mouth, throat and nasal passages, giving quick relief from obstinate catarrh, hay fever, etc.
And it’s no surprise, given what we have seen with Vin Mariani (‘used by the great Armies and Navies of the world,’ as Toronto Saturday Night reports), that alcohol too was used as a cure. In 1924 the Westminster Gazette carried an advert for an Australian burgundy, Keystone, which related how:
…it is good for your health to drink a superior wine like Keystone burgundy every day. Always have it at lunch and dinner to get the full benefit of its invigorating and healthful effect.
Of course, most famously, there was the slogan ‘Guinness is Good For You’ – but the iron content of this drink, plus its antioxidants, means that this claim might just have a better grounding than others!
In 1894 one writer for The Social Review (Dublin) had grown sick of ‘quack remedies‘ and the ‘ridiculous statements and alarming testimonials’ that were published by newspapers on a daily basis. The writer wryly observes how ‘If we are to trust the advertisements, one has to but take one or two of ‘Blank’s Pills’ to cure everything, from consumption to ‘housemaid’s knee.”
They instead suggest the use of ‘simple household remedies,’ and so we thought we’d pull out a selection of these from our newspapers. Again, we cannot endorse any of these so please don’t try them at home!
To cure a cough or cold, the Barnsley Chronicle in 1904 suggests at the very start of the cold, to ‘take a hot mustard bath and go to bed, being careful not to take more cold afterwards.’ It also suggests drinking ‘flaxseed tea with plenty of lemon juice and loaf sugar’ to ease sore lungs, and consuming ‘equal parts of honey, olive oil and pure homemade wine made from grape juice or currants’ to cure a bad cough.
Here are two simple ways of preventing a cold from following a chill:- Drink a cup of hot water (as hot as possible), or inhale three or four very deep breaths, and exhale through the nostrils.
In 1929 Sir William Arbuthnot Lane proposed in The Graphic how ‘the best preventative and resistant of colds and chills is physical activity in the open air.’ Meanwhile, the Southern Reporter in October 1928 recommends a mixture of the ‘best Spanish liquorice’ and ‘one or two garlics (the full garlic with eight cloves)’ to cure a ‘bronchial cough.’
For sore throats, the Carlow Sentinel suggests using ‘salt and water‘ as a gargle in 1914, which served a dual purpose as an ‘excellent remedy for the bites and stings of insects.’ The Beeston Gazette and Echo is another salt water proponent, but also suggests a ‘little alum and honey’ to ease a sore throat, along with ‘hot compresses, cloths or flannels wrung out with hot water and wrapped around the throat.’
The Southern Reporter suggests in 1918 a rub for the throat, consisting of mint, laudanum, hartshorn and turpentine, which could also be used for ‘sprains and swellings.’
We also found remedies for burns and bruises in the pages of our newspapers. For burns, the Linlithgowshire Gazette in 1906 suggests a mixture of ‘linseed oil, glycerine and borax water, mixed together and freely applied,’ whilst the Carlow Sentinel in 1914 offers ‘common baking soda [as] the best of all remedies in the case of scalds and burns.’
For bruises, the Todmorden & District News describes how ‘starch, moistened with a little warm water’ can prevent a bruise from discolouring if applied immediately after the accident. In the case of a black eye, the Linlithgowshire Gazette recommends the application of a ‘cloth wrung out of warm water’ to prevent the ‘soreness and discolouring of the skin.’
To treat corns, ‘a little oil of peppermint’ will do, according to the Todmorden & District News. Meanwhile, the same newspaper in 1925 suggests adding ‘the juice of half a lemon’ to a cup of black coffee, ‘taken without sugar or milk’ in order to cure headaches.
Fruit could have some curiously beneficial effects, if our newspapers are to be believed. The Todmorden & District News describes that if ‘fruit [is] eaten before breakfast, or at that meal’ the redness of the nose will be reduced, and the complexion will be improved ‘greatly.’ Moreover, the Southern Reporter in 1931 reports how ‘Grapes, either English hothouse or foreign black and white grapes…are good for nervous people.’ Pineapples, too, are described as being ‘good for nervous people also.’
We hoped you enjoyed our foray through the dubious medical remedies of the past. There are much more out there to discover, so why not start your British Newspaper Archive research journey today?