In the 19th century, science was king. Everyone thought we’d reached the pinnacle of human invention and knowledge, and we would soon be living in a utopia. Doctors were held in unquestioned regard, and when they came out with a new cure, it worked! Because why would anyone lie about something like that? Before governments decided it would be a good idea to truly regulate claims made by medicine makers, sleazy snake oil peddlers and medicine showmen traveled the world selling tonics that would make fantastic claims. Looking back on some of the products even the most mainstream companies created is a bit… unsettling.
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The scariest part of wildly untested drugs are the ingredients that we now know have very intense effects. For example, Victorian parents used to administer drugs containing opium to their children to help quiet them down when they went away to work. Nefarious ingredients were slipped into soothing syrups for teething children, or to help settle down a child’s cough.
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The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and let’s hope intentions were pure when companies were creating such obviously (now) bad ideas as cigarettes to help soothe asthma. Interestingly enough, Paregoric, which contains powdered opium, is still available in medications, but to a much more limited extent.
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It’s widely known that Freud thought cocaine was a wonder drug that helped the mind, but so did the Pope! Cocaine used to be used in everything from cough drops, to wine, and even to soda (coca-cola’s original incarnation). Pope Leo XIII enjoyed Mariani’s coca wine so much that he awarded it a Vatican medal, and they used his image in their advertising. Queen Victoria and Thomas Edison were also said to be great fans.
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The packaging of medicinal products used to say it all. Package decorations varied from the most epic scenes of courage and defense, to intense, clearly very scientific diagrams, all the way down to emotional illustrations meant to grab your attention. Despite reforms, drug companies still advertise similarly; they showcase confident families and business people grinning and going about their day with a purpose that the sick just don’t have.
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The tone of vintage advertising is always interesting, but if you think ads promising weight loss are outrageous now, take a crack at these wonderful examples. Besides the fact that most people would find consuming tapeworms abhorrent, the colorful language and ridiculous imagery makes these ads a delight.
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You have to give old time doctors credit – they were creative. They loved to come up with long lists of ailments that sound great but are difficult to pinpoint. For example, stomach chills and nervous and chronic diseases are common ones. How many doctors today could fashion an artificial ear drum better than the real thing? Or an electric belt that has curative properties without the use of medicine? Unfortunately, these products don’t sound too far fetched for anyone who watches the occasional infomercial.
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Benzedrine used to be an incredibly popular inhaler, chock full of amphetamines (known more commonly as speed), which was widely touted as increasing wakefulness and focus, with the added benefit of decreasing appetite. Amphetamines were sold under many brand names, and were most commonly used to assist weight loss.
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It might be surprising to dig into the past of some of our most popular drug companies, such as Bayer’s branded product “Heroin” which was touted as a non addictive substitute for morphine… until it was discovered that it actually metabolized into morphine, only on a much more powerful scale.
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We may not have changed as much as we’d like from the Victorian era, but at least the population is (hopefully) a bit more knowledgeable, and there is quite a bit more regulation. Judging from the past, this is a good thing. One thing the Victorians always did with style, however, is make some damn beautiful packaging.