Quack medical cures: J.C. Ayer and the persistence of personal testimony
Posted by Darin Hayton on 10/07 at 11:07 AM
Another patent medicine company that thrived during the later nineteenth and early twentieth century was J.C. Ayer & Co., in Lowell, Massachusetts. Like most patent medicine companies, they claimed to be chemists (in this case, practical and analytical chemists) and they produced annual almanacs hawking their miracle cures.
The cover of each J.C. Ayer’s almanac was decorated with a traditional, often classical engraving. Here, the great Greek physician Hippocrates stands atop the earth above a banner declaring “Heal the sick.”
The standard array of astronomical, astrological, and calendrical information was found on the second page. This entire page is something of a vestige from medieval almanacs and calendars, which always began with a list of the eclipses, the Dominical Letter, the Epact, Solar and Lunar cycles, and, the ever present, the zodiacal man.
An interesting addition to the legend of astrological symbols are the symbols for the two relatively new planets Uranus and Neptune. Beyond that, this information could be culled from any almanac dating back more than 500 years.
Even the calendar of days is not too dissimilar from its medieval predecessors. The key information includes the date of the month, the day of the week, significant astrological aspects, names of significant people or saints, weather, and the position of the moon in the zodiac (useful for medical treatments).
J.C. Ayer & Co. did not limit their advertising to their annual almanacs. They also printed and distributed other pamphlets and trading cards. Although the pamphlets often provided some useful information, they were merely vehicles for additional propaganda. J.C. Ayer published a recipe book of preserves.
Like all these ephemeral texts, J.C. Ayer’s Preserve Book was distributed free of charge. Usually the local chemist or drug store would stamp their name and address on the back cover. Regrettably, this particular copy bears no such stamp.
Inside the layout is the same: the left-hand page includes J.C. Ayer’s propaganda, often with numerous personal testimony, and the right-hand page includes various recipes.
Here a quaint little illustration shows a pilot steering his ship. The text links this to the physician and then to J.C. Ayer’s Sarsaparilla:
“The skillful pilot steers his ship through all dangers and guides her safely to port. So the skillful physician pilots his patient through the perils of sickness to perfect health. In cases of General Debility, so common at present day, he recommends the use of Ayer’s Sarsaparilla, because of its superior efficacy in aiding the formation of pure and vigorous blood, thereby restoring the normal condition to every fibre, organ, nerve, and muscle of the body. It cures others and will cure you. This standard remedy is compounded of the best tonics and alternatives known to science, and its superior qualities as blood-purifier and invigorator have stood the test of nearly half a century.”
A variety of testimonials follow this bold proclamation. Of particular interest is J.C. Ayer’s ability to restore health “after the system had become depleted from malarial attacks.” Who knew?
Like Dr. Miles, Dr. J.C. Ayer also makes products that promise to restore your youthful appearance. J.C. Ayer was famous for their hair tonic.
Ayer’s Hair Vigor prevents and cures hair loss while at the same time, and presumably with the same miracle pills, restores the color and texture of existing hair. Testimonials from woman and perhaps also from men, reassure the reader that using Ayer’s Hair Vigor will restore your hair to its rich, full, luxurious color and texture, just as it was in your youth. These testimonials for Ayer’s Hair Vigor reveal just how little progress we’ve made in both accepting hair loss and in treating it. Take as a comparison the claims made for Rogaine, by Real Men. Real Stories:
“‘I’ve been using your product since January 2008. I’ve been very, very pleased with the results – more than I anticipated.’
Hugh in El Dorado Hills, CA
‘It’s definitely kept the amount of hair I had. It’s stopped the loss. And after four months I’m starting to see more hair growing.’
Harvey in Philadelphia, PA”
And from Ayer’s:
“‘Some six or seven years ago my wife had a severe illness, in consequence of which she became almost entirely bald. A few months since she began using Ayer’s Hair Vigor and now has a good growth of hair started all over her head. The result is a most gratifying proof of the merits of this admirable preparation.’ Fredk. P. Coggeshall, Bookseller, 51 Merrimack St., Lowell, Mass.”
130 years of progress and we are still selling miracle cures for regenerating hair, claiming to hide the signs of aging by restoring hair to its youthful color, texture, and fullness. Vitamin and smart waters are multimillion-dollar industries, despite misleading advertising and questionable efficacy. The parallels between patent medicines and contemporary, FDA-approved medicines is striking and disturbing. Perhaps we need another Samuel Hopkins Adams to sweep in a second Pure Food and Drug Act. Then again, the last one didn’t solve the problem, so a new one probably wouldn’t either.