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Screenland // Public Domain

13 Questionable Weight-Loss Products From History

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Screenland // Public Domain

By the late 19th century, Americans had developed a stigma around fatness. At the same time, magazines were becoming far more influential as both their number and circulation exploded. In 1860, 575 magazines were published in the United States; by 1905, that number was 7500. With more magazines came more advertising, and with a cultural shift toward thinness as a beauty ideal, many of those ads began promising weight loss, especially in film fan magazines and other publications geared toward women. But some of the methods they proposed for “reducing” (dropping the pounds) were questionable, while others were downright bizarre—and even dangerous.

1. FATOFF

Ad for Fatoff from Life magazine
Life magazine // Public Domain

Introduced around 1909, Fatoff claimed to simply melt your fat away with “No Dieting! No Dosing! External application only!” In one 1912 ad, the supposed creator of the product, Mary Spencer Borden, gave a confusing account of its origins: “I, Mary Spencer Borden, under oath say that less than six years ago I was a monstrosity with fat and rheumatism, and I weighed over 225 pounds in the upper part of my body and my lower limbs had atrophied. […] I had tried every known remedy to reduce my fat without any success whatever until I thought of this wonderful ‘FATOFF.’ […] I cannot say I discovered it. It was an inspiration.” Department of Agriculture chemists felt differently, calling the product an “unmitigated fraud” after a chemical analysis revealed Fatoff to “consist of 10 per cent soap and about 90 per cent water.”

2. DR. WALTER’S FAMOUS MEDICATED REDUCING RUBBER GARMENTS

An ad for Dr. Walters Rubber Reducing Garments in the NYT
New York Times // Public Domain

Made of rubber with a “medicated” coating, Dr. Walter’s garments claimed to stimulate weight loss by causing the wearer to sweat. The brand sold a garment for every conceivable problem area, including the chin, neck, waist, bust, hips, legs, ankles, arms, and hands. (Dr. Walter also offered a terrifying rubber face mask—“Excellent for bleaching the face.”)

Not only would Dr. Walter’s Famous Medicated Reducing Rubber Garments fix unsightly ankles and banish a double chin, but they even claimed to be comfortable. While wrapping your torso in rubber may not scream “comfortable” to us now, rubber girdles—Dr. Walter’s most popular product—were a welcome alternative to the classic corset, with its rigid, painful boning. Beginning in 1904, Walter submitted patents on a number of rubber garments, and she advertised her “reducing garments” in magazines like Vogue and newspapers like The New York Times from 1906 through the early 1920s. By 1922, ads touted “millions” of sales. “Reducing” corsets and girdles from various brands continued to be sold through the 1930s, serving the same purposes as today’s Spanx—except that they claimed to make you “look thin while getting thin.”

3. DR. LAWTON’S FAT REDUCER

Ad for Dr Lawton's Fat Reducer in the Tatler
The Tatler // Public Domain

Launched around 1921, Dr. Lawton’s Fat Reducer was a suction cup device that claimed to “dissolve and eliminate superfluous fat from the system” using vacuum massage. Designed like a plunger, it produced results in four or five days, the ads asserted, by “break[ing] down the fat tissue” through its “massage effect.” The company offered a money-back guarantee if the customer didn’t see progress after 11 days.

4. LESSER SLIM FIGURE BATH

An ad for a weight loss bath
Chicago Sunday Tribune // Public Domain

The Lesser Company advertised its Slim Figure Bath as “the sensation of Europe,” catching consumer eyes with images of naked, frolicking women. Presented as a German invention, Slim Figure Bath ads referred to “clinical tests” by “prominent Berlin physicians” and something called “the famous Nauheim principle”—representing the brand as exotically European and playing it up as highly scientific and modern. But Slim Figure was merely one brand of bath powder claiming the magical ability to melt fat—and like its competitors Florazona, Fayro, and Every Woman’s Flesh Reducer, it simply didn’t work.

According to Carl Malmberg, author of a 1930s exposé on fad diets called Diet and Die, Lesser Slim Figure Bath was composed of corn starch, baking soda, table salt, borax, and tartaric acid (which is present in cream of tartar). It did not need to come from a German lab but could be mixed up in the kitchen. Like the ads claimed, it was “absolutely harmless,” but it was also absolutely useless as a weight-loss product, with the American Medical Association (AMA) calling it an “elaborately exploited piece of quackery.”

5. DAINTY-FORM REDUCING CREAM

An ad for a weight loss cream
Screenland // Public Domain

Creams that claimed to dissolve fat were another popular product in the 1920s. In addition to Dainty-Form Reducing Cream, consumers could purchase Melto Reducing Cream, Slendaform Reducing Cream, Franco French Reducing Cream, and the specialized FLEC Ankle Reducing Cream. “Ads for passive [weight-loss] products such as pills, tea, and soap were usually aimed at women,” writes Heather Addison, a film studies scholar, in her book Hollywood and the Rise of Physical Culture. Conversely, ads aimed at men often touted exercise and promised to build muscle. Dainty-Form cultivated its feminine image, often including testimonials from Ziegfeld Follies chorus girls in its advertisements alongside images of sylphlike women.

6. LA MAR REDUCING SOAP

An ad for a weight loss soap
Picture-Play Magazine // Public Domain

La Mar Reducing Soap was a coconut-oil soap tinged with potassium iodide and sassafras that claimed to melt away fat while shrinking skin so that there would be no excess skin after the weight was lost. It sold at 50 cents per bar, and customers hoping to become thin could purchase the accompanying Slenmar Reducing Brush for an additional $3. At its height, the company sold 200 to 300 soaps per day, though it reportedly spent $120,000 advertising the product against just $150,000 in annual receipts. The head of the AMA’s investigative wing called the product “unadulterated hokum,” and in 1926, it was declared a fraud by the U.S. Postmaster General and the company was barred from advertising or processing sales through the mail.

7. REDUCINE

An ad for Reducine
Screenland // Public Domain

Reducine was a “pleasant cream” that caused a “harmless chemical reaction […] during which the excess fat is literally dissolved away”—and it prompted the first-ever Federal Trade Commission case against a weight-loss product. In 1927, the FTC declared that Reducine was “useless and of no value for the purposes for which it is so advertised.” As a one-two punch against this fraudulent advertising, the FTC issued a cease and desist order to both McGowan Laboratories, which made Reducine, and a publishing company that had been running its ads in the magazine True Romances. By accepting the advertisements, the FTC ruled, the publisher had become “purposely and knowingly party to and part of a false and fraudulent plan for the misleading and deceptive advertisement and sale of a product”—an illegal act [PDF]. Cease and desist orders, as well as private agreements to shed advertising of questionable products, became key parts of the FTC's toolkit in attempting to root out sham weight-loss products in the following years.

(The “reducing cream” Reducine differed from another cream called Reducine, which was sold around the same time—and still is—as a remedy for horse lameness.)

8. WEIL SCIENTIFIC REDUCING BELT

An ad for Weil Reducing Belt
Spicy-Adventure Stories // Public Domain

First appearing around 1922, the Weil Scientific Reducing Belt promised to “melt away surplus fat” thanks to a “massage” action that would occur as the body moved against the “self-massaging belt.” Unlike most of the weight-loss products we’ve highlighted here, Weil’s belt was marketed primarily to men, advertising in magazines like Popular Mechanics, The Rotarian, The American Legion Weekly, and Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen’s Magazine. Even ads in female-focused movie magazines like Screenland were headlined with callouts to “Fat Men!” The belt spent more than a decade on the market, but in 1936, the Federal Trade Commission launched an inquiry into the Weil Company for fraudulent advertising claims, eventually issuing a cease and desist order for any marketing asserting that the Weil Scientific Reducing Belt could actually reduce weight or fat, build up muscle, increase circulation, increase energy, “or otherwise improve the health” [PDF].

9. SILPH REDUCING CHEWING GUM

“Just think that all one has to do to take off ugly—unsightly rolls of FAT is to chew two or three pieces of a refreshing, delightful chewing gum.” Just think! Unlike many other so-called “obesity cures,” Silph Reducing Chewing Gum actually had the power to effect weight loss—but that’s because, despite marketing claims that it “contains no thyroid or dangerous drugs” [PDF], Silph included desiccated animal thyroid that exerted a hazardous influence on the metabolism. This mid-1920s product was also laced with laxatives and poisonous pokeroot. In 1926, the Post Office issued a fraud order and banned the product from being advertised or shipped by U.S. mail.

The idea of weight-loss gum reappeared in the early 1970s with Vel-X Gum. Advertised in comic books, Vel-X was investigated by the FDA and banned in 1972 from claiming any weight-loss properties.

10. NEUTROIDS

An ad for the weight loss supplement Neutroids
Screenland // Public Domain

To promote his weight-loss invention Neutroids, Dr. R.L. Graham offered a bizarre explanation of why the body produces fat. “The fat in your body is caused by a simple chemical process,” ads explained. “Yeast cells in your stomach combine with starch and sugar and form ALCOHOL. When alcohol gets in the blood, fatty tissue is made instead of healthy, lean muscle. Fat people, even though they may be TOTAL ABSTAINERS have four billion yeast cells (or more) in their stomachs—enough to make 4 ounces of alcohol a day!” The solution: Neutroids, which purportedly destroyed yeast cells in the stomach and thus prevented the body from developing fat. The ads even included a helpful visualization of the resulting “reduction in stomach yeast cells,” in the form of a sketch of what looks like piles of grain.

Of course, Dr. Graham was wrong about why the body produces fat, and while his Neutroids could potentially have caused weight loss, it was not for the reason he asserted. According to analysis by the AMA’s Bureau of Investigation, the tablets contained 50 percent iodol, which the Bureau described as “distinctly poisonous”—a substance known to cause emaciation and death if taken in significant amounts.

11. LUCKY STRIKE CIGARETTES

An ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes
Collection of Stanford Research Into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising // Used with permission

Beginning in 1929, Lucky Strike Cigarettes ran an ad campaign urging people to lose weight by having a smoke whenever they felt a craving for food. Marketers considered a tagline that rhymed, “[W]hen tempted to nibble remember your middle. Light up a Lucky … be smart, be slender!” They eventually settled on the simple command “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” However, facing the threat of lawsuits from candy-makers, Lucky Strike dropped the word “sweet,” telling consumers to just “Reach for a Lucky instead.”

Lucky Strike ads condemned “harmful reducing girdles, fake reducing tables [and] other quack ‘anti-fat’ remedies condemned by the Medical profession,” explicitly positioning their cigarettes as a safe, doctor-approved weight-loss alternative to “ridiculous and dangerous nostrums.” Oddly enough, the company did not claim that Lucky cigarettes themselves caused weight loss, but only that the practice of having a smoke instead of a snack led to weight loss. We now know that smoking is an appetite-suppressant—and not just if you reach for a cigarette instead of a candy bar.

12. VIGOR’S HORSE ACTION SADDLE

“The best exercise for the strong, the weak, also the blind, lame or crippled”—or so it claimed—Vigor’s Horse Action Saddle promised to cure everything from obesity to hysteria. Though it may look ridiculous to us today, in 1894 the British medical journal The Lancet called the product “very ingenious.” Vigor & Co. sold multiple versions of this device, with the cheapest costing 7 guineas and the most expensive going for 21 guineas. The models meant for women came equipped with a side saddle, while the men’s versions were designed for the user to sit astride. Though you won’t find horse-riding machines at workout facilities nowadays, the devices were relatively popular in their time—the Titanic even included a motorized version in its first-class gymnasium in 1912.

13. HEMP BODI-MASSAGER

Sold during the 1930s by the Conley Company, the Hemp Bodi-Massager offered to roll your fat away. Equipped with rubber balls attached to a handle, the product claimed to massage “just like skillful human hands,” but the Council on Physical Therapy at the AMA reported that “it did exactly what, in practicing good massage, a masseur tries to avoid,” pinching the skin instead of kneading deep tissue. In 1935, the FTC blocked the Conley Company from a laundry list of claims, including any statements that the Hemp Body-Massager caused weight-loss or that it “works like magic” [PDF].

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Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0
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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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