13 Questionable Weight-Loss Products From History

Screenland // Public Domain
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].

7 Terrifying Historical Remedies for Migraine Headaches

George Marks/Getty Images
George Marks/Getty Images

Migraines are more than just splitting headaches. Migraine symptoms, which affect about one in seven people worldwide, can include throbbing pain on one side of the head, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and visual disturbances called auras. Today, several classes of drugs are prescribed to either prevent migraine headaches from happening or halt them once they’ve started. But in previous centuries, migraine treatments weren’t so convenient—or effective.

1. Bloodletting

Whether by scalpel or by leeches, bloodletting was the most common remedy for migraine headaches (and many other ailments) before the advent of modern medicine. Throughout most of history, Western physicians subscribed to the humoral theory, in which human health was governed by four fluids (humors) that must be kept in balance. Sickness was explained as an imbalance of humors, and bloodletting was thought to rebalance the system. The methods varied, though. In the case of migraine headaches, the Greek physician Aretaeus suggested sticking a barbed goose feather up the unfortunate patient’s nose and prodding around until blood flowed.

Even as late as the 18th century, bloodletting was still believed to help migraines. Swiss physician Samuel Auguste Tissot, who was the first to describe migraines as a discrete medical condition in the 1770s, recommended bleeding, better hygiene and diet, and drugs including infusions of orange leaves and valerian.

2. Garlic

The 11th-century physician Abu al-Qasim suggested sticking a clove of garlic into the migraine headache sufferer’s temple. He offered a handy recipe:

“Take a garlic; peel and cut at both extremities. Make an incision with a large scalpel in the temple and keep under the skin a cavity wide enough to introduce the garlic and to conceal it completely. Apply compresses and tighten, let it remain about 15 hours, then remove the device. Extract the garlic, leave the wound for two or three days, then apply cotton soaked in butter until it suppurates.”

Once the wound started oozing—which was considered a good sign—the physician would cauterize the incision with a hot iron. Cauterization was meant to prevent infection, although modern research has shown that it actually lowers the threshold for bacterial infections.

3. Cupping

Cupping—inverting hot glass vessels on the patients’ body—was thought to perform the same function as bloodletting. Prominent Dutch physician Nicolaes Tulp, depicted in Rembrandt’s 1632 painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, treated a migraine sufferer by cupping. She soon recovered.

A substance called cantharidin, a potent blistering agent secreted by the Meloidae family of beetles, was also applied as part of the cupping and blistering process to draw out bad humors. Unfortunately, if the cantharidin was left on too long, it could be absorbed into the body and cause painful urination, gastrointestinal and renal dysfunction, and organ failure. (Perhaps unrelatedly, cantharidin was also used as an aphrodisiac.)

4. Trepanation

One of the oldest types of surgery, trepanation is the practice of cutting away part of the cranium and exposing brain tissue to treat injuries or chronic conditions like migraine headaches. The 16th-century Dutch physician Petrus Forestus, who meticulously recorded the ailments and treatments of his patients, performed trepanation on a person with incurable migraines. In the brain tissue he found something he called a “black worm.” According to a 2010 study by neurologist Peter J. Koehler, the mass may have been a chronic subdural hematoma—a collection of blood between the surface of the brain and its outermost covering—and a possible cause of the patient’s agony.

5. Dead Moles

Ali ibn Isa al-Kahhal, the leading ophthalmologist of the medieval Muslim world, described more than 130 eye diseases and treatments in his groundbreaking monograph Tadhkirat al-kaḥḥālīn (The Notebook of the Oculists). While his descriptions of ocular anatomy were sound, he also touched on remedies for headaches, and here his prescriptions seem more suspect. To treat migraines, he suggested tying a dead mole to one’s head.

6. Electric Fish

Long before scientists fully understood the principles of electricity, ancient doctors recommended it as a remedy for migraines. Scribonius Largus, the court physician for the Roman emperor Claudius, saw that the torpedo fish—also known as the electric ray, native to the Mediterranean Sea among other areas—had the power to shock anyone who touched it. Largus and other doctors prescribed the shocks as cures for headache, gout, and prolapsed anus.

In the mid-18th century, a Dutch journal reported that the electric eel, found in South America, emitted even stronger shocks than the Mediterranean fish and were used for head pain. One observer wrote that headache sufferers “put one of their hands on their head and the other on the fish, and thereby will be helped immediately, without exception.”

7. Mud Foot-Baths

Compared to expired rodents, warm foot-baths must have sounded positively decadent to those afflicted with extreme pain. Nineteenth-century physicians suggested that migraine sufferers take the waters at Marienbad (now Mariánské Lázně) and Karlsbad (now Karlovy Vary), two spa towns in what is now the Czech Republic. While the mineral waters were useful for alleviating congestive headaches, mud foot-baths were believed to draw blood toward the feet and away from the head, calming the nervous system. “The foot-bath ought not to be taken too hot, and the feet should be rubbed one over the other while washing the mud off, and afterwards with a coarse towel. A brisk walk may be used to keep up the circulation,” suggested Prussian Army physician Apollinaris Victor Jagielski, M.D. in 1873.

Who Stole My Cheese? Archivists Are Cataloging 200 Years of Criminal Records From the Isle of Ely

Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons
Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr, Wikimedia Commons

And you thought your parents were strict. In 16th century England, the same courts that tried murderers were also tasked with getting to the bottom of cheese thefts.

As The Guardian reports, archivists from the University of Cambridge have begun cataloging close to 270 court documents from the Isle of Ely, a historic region of England known for its magnificent, gothic-style cathedral as well as being the home of Oliver Cromwell for more than a decade (Cromwell was appointed governor of the isle in 1643).

Some of the documents, which are dated from 1557 to 1775, relate to matters that may seem macabre—or even ridiculous—in the modern world. But they offer a keen insight into the area's past. "This project enables us to hear the voices of people from all backgrounds ... long dead and forgotten, and for whom there is no other surviving record," archivist Sian Collins told The Guardian.

One such person was yeoman John Webbe, who was charged with defamation by one William Tyler after Tyler's wife, Joan, overheard Webbe tell someone that: "Tyler thy husband is a knave, a rascall & a thief for he stole my goodes thefyshely [thievishly] in the night."

Then there was poor William Sturns, whose only crime was a hunger that led him to steal three cheeses; ultimately, he was deemed not guilty. "Unfortunately we don’t know what type of cheese it was," Collins told Atlas Obscura. "But cheesemaking was fairly common in the area at the time."

Not all of Ely's court cases were about backtalk and dairy products, though. The university’s website details how in 1577, Margaret Cotte was accused of using witchcraft to kill Martha Johnson, the daughter of a local blacksmith. Margaret was eventually found not guilty, which is part of what makes this project so important.

"Martha and Margaret may not appear in any other records," Collins said. "This is all we know about them."

[h/t The Guardian]

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