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].

The True Story Behind Gentleman Jack: 10 Facts About Anne Lister

Suranne Jones stars as Anne Lister in HBO's Gentleman Jack.
Suranne Jones stars as Anne Lister in HBO's Gentleman Jack.
Jay Brooks, HBO

Anne Lister was one of the 19th century's most intriguing characters: she was a businesswoman, a mountaineer, a world traveler, and a science enthusiast. But it’s her love life that she’s mainly remembered for today. Often described as the “first modern lesbian,” Lister had a number of same-sex relationships, as chronicled in her gripping, 26-volume diary. Due in part to her rather masculine fashion sense, Lister was nicknamed “Gentleman Jack.” Which also happens to be the title of a new HBO series based on her life, starring the brilliant Suranne Jones (Doctor Foster, Coronation Street). Here are 10 things you should know about Anne Lister.

1. Anne Lister used her love of books as a compatibility test.

“I love and only love the fairer sex, and thus beloved by them in turn, my heart revolts from any love but theirs,” Lister wrote in her diary in 1820. Before she eventually settled down with heiress Ann Walker, Lister won the hearts of numerous other women. Courting them wasn’t always easy, but Lister had her methods. While flirting, she used to gauge the other party’s interest by mentioning books or plays that dealt with LGBTQ issues—like the writings of Juvenal, a Roman poet who had some pretty strong opinions about homosexuality. By watching the listener’s reaction, Lister could often predict if her advances would be successful.

2. Traditionally “feminine” clothing just wasn’t Lister’s style.

Lister's era was one full of whalebone corsets and restrictive petticoats, yet her personal style emphasized function over form. Because she moved at a brisk pace and enjoyed long walks through the countryside (she reportedly walked 25 miles in a single outing on at least one occasion), she tended to wear thick, leather boots, which were generally deemed unladylike. She further defied convention by sporting lots and lots of black. Even though it was seen as a masculine color at the time, Lister filled her wardrobe with black bodices and long coats. She felt that the dark garments complimented her wiry physique, and in 1817, Lister—then 26 years old—declared, “I have entered upon my plan of always wearing black.”

3. She ran her family's estate for more than a decade.

Growing up, Lister would frequently visit Shibden Hall, the brick-and-timber mansion that was the home of her aunt and uncle, who had no children of his own. Lister moved into the estate in 1815, after the untimely deaths of all four of her brothers. When her uncle James passed away in 1826, the job of managing Shibden Hall (and its surrounding 400 acres) fell to Lister. She handled its finances, oversaw its coal deposits and quarries, profited off of the onsite canals and timber, and collected rent from its tenants right up until her death in 1840.

4. As an anatomy student, Lister once dissected a human head.

On one of her extended trips to Paris, Lister was often seen attending scientific lectures, where she deepened her knowledge of everything from zoology to mineralogy. According to Angela Steidele’s 2018 book, The Gentleman Jack: A Biography of Anne Lister, Regency Landowner, Seducer and Secret Diarist, the eager pupil cut open a deceased rabbit, a severed human hand, a disembodied ear, and “a woman’s head.” “It is not known where the head came from,” Steidele wrote. “Anne, who had kissed so many women, took on the dissection of the face. She preserved the bits in rectified spirits and kept them in a cabinet she obtained especially, which also contained a skeleton and several skulls."

5. She was an accomplished mountaineer.

In 1830, Lister earned the distinction of becoming the first woman to ascend Mount Perdu, the third highest mountain in the Pyrenees Range. (Its peak is 11,007 feet above sea level.) Eight years later, she became the first amateur climber to ever scale the Vignemale, an almost equally tall summit in the same range.

6. She and Ann Walker married in 1834 in what is often cited as the first lesbian wedding in recorded British history.


Portrait by Joshua Horner - GLBTQ Encyclopedia, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On Easter Sunday, 1834, Lister married Ann Walker in what is often cited as the first lesbian wedding in recorded British history.

The women had been acquaintances for several years. Walker was 12 years younger than Lister and, by all accounts, a whole lot shyer. In 1834, she finally accepted Lister’s persistent proposals to join her in a union that would be “the same as a marriage” (as Walker described it).

After selecting a pair of rings, they took communion together on Easter Sunday, 1834, at the Holy Trinity Church, Goodramgate in York. So far as Lister and Walker were concerned, the shared Easter service was their stand-in wedding ceremony. They never mentioned this to the church, and their marriage went unrecognized in the eyes of the law. But if you visit the house of worship today, you’ll find a rainbow-ringed plaque that reads, “Anne Lister 1791-1840 of Shibden Hall, Halifax Lesbian and Diarist; took sacrament here to seal her union with Ann Walker [on] Easter 1834.”

7. an angry mob once burned effigies of lister and walker .

Lister didn't make a lot of friends among her tenants. She used to pressure them into voting Tory and refused to rent land to people who didn’t share her political beliefs. Her notoriety only increased after she began her new domestic life with Walker. Lister took an active role in managing her significant other’s estate, which was located near Shibden Hall. Soon, a dispute broke out over a drinking well on Walker’s land. Although residents of the broader community depended on that well, Lister considered it family property. So to assert her control over the situation, she had a barrel of tar dumped into the water—making it unfit for consumption. In retaliation, effigies of both Lister and Walker were burned. (Ultimately, a magistrate ruled that the water belonged to the public, and that Lister’s actions were unjustified.)

8. Lister died while vacationing in the country of Georgia.

Throughout her life, Lister maintained a passion for traveling. In 1840, Lister and Walker toured eastern Europe. That autumn, the couple was out exploring present-day Georgia (the country) when Lister came down with a horrible fever, possibly as the result of a tick bite. [PDF] Lister died on September 22, 1840; she was only 49 years old. Walker brought Lister's remains back to England, where they were buried at Halifax Minster.

9. Altogether, Lister wrote more than 7000 pages of diary entries.

Lister left behind a 26-volume diary encompassing a grand total of 7722 pages and roughly 5 million words. She started documenting her fascinating life in 1806, when she was just 15 years old. Around one-sixth of the preserved pages were transcribed in code. Those cryptic passages included some vivid descriptions of Lister’s sex life.

10. Some of those diary entries had to be decoded—twice!

The code Lister used was an odd, punctuation-free mixture of ancient Greek letters and algebraic signs. Toward the end of the 19th century, John Lister, one of her surviving relatives, successfully cracked the code with the help of his friend, Arthur Burrell. But once he figured out what the documents actually said, John hid them away, lest they attract a scandal. When Lister’s journals were subsequently rediscovered, a writer by the name of Helena Whitbread managed to unravel the code again in the 1980s. Whitbread then published decoded editions of the diaries, and the rest is history.

10 Fascinating Facts About Ella Fitzgerald

Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Library of Congress (LOC), Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Pioneering jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald—who was born on April 25, 1917—helped revolutionize the genre. But the iconic songstress’s foray into the music industry was almost accidental, as she had planned to show off her dancing skills when she made her stage debut. Celebrate the life of the artist known as the First Lady of Song, Queen of Jazz, or just plain ol’ Lady Ella with these fascinating facts.

1. Ella Fitzgerald was a jazz fan from a young age.

Though she attempted to launch her career as a dancer (more on that in a moment), Ella Fitzgerald was a jazz enthusiast from a very young age. She was a fan of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, and truly idolized Connee Boswell of the Boswell Sisters. “She was tops at the time,” Fitzgerald said in 1988. “I was attracted to her immediately. My mother brought home one of her records, and I fell in love with it. I tried so hard to sound just like her.”

2. She dabbled in criminal activities as a teenager.

A photo of Ella Fitzgerald
Carl Van Vechten - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Fitzgerald’s childhood wasn’t an easy one. Her stepfather was reportedly abusive to her, and that abuse continued following the death of Fitzgerald’s mother in 1932. Eventually, to escape the violence, she moved to Harlem to live with her aunt. While she had been a great student when she was younger, it was following that move that her dedication to education faltered. Her grades dropped and she often skipped school. But she found other ways to fill her days, not all of them legal: According to The New York Times, she worked for a mafia numbers runner and served as a police lookout at a local brothel. Her illicit activities eventually landed her in an orphanage, followed by a state reformatory.

3. She made her stage debut at the Apollo Theater.

In the early 1930s, Fitzgerald was able to make a little pocket change from the tips she made from passersby while singing on the streets of Harlem. In 1934, she finally got the chance to step onto a real (and very famous) stage when she took part in an Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater on November 21, 1934. It was her stage debut.

The then-17-year-old managed to wow the crowd by channeling her inner Connee Boswell and belting out her renditions of “Judy” and “The Object of My Affection.” She won, and took home a $25 prize. Here’s the interesting part: She entered the competition as a dancer. But when she saw that she had some stiff competition in that department, she opted to sing instead. It was the first big step toward a career in music.

4. A nursery rhyme helped her get the public's attention.

Not long after her successful debut at the Apollo, Fitzgerald met bandleader Chick Webb. Though he was initially reluctant to hire her because of what The New York Times described as her “gawky and unkempt” appearance, her powerful voice won him over. "I thought my singing was pretty much hollering," she later said, "but Webb didn't."

Her first hit was a unique adaptation of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which she helped to write based on what she described as "that old drop-the-handkerchief game I played from 6 to 7 years old on up."

5. She was painfully shy.

Though it certainly takes a lot of courage to get up and perform in front of the world, those who knew and worked with Fitzgerald said that she was extremely shy. In Ella Fitzgerald: A Biography of the First Lady of Jazz, trumpeter Mario Bauzá—who played with Fitzgerald in Chick Webb’s orchestra—explained that “she didn't hang out much. When she got into the band, she was dedicated to her music … She was a lonely girl around New York, just kept herself to herself, for the gig."

6. She made her film debut in an Abbott and Costello movie.

As her IMDb profile attests, Fitzgerald contributed to a number of films and television series over the years, and not just to the soundtracks. She also worked as an actress on a handful of occasions (often an actress who sings), beginning with 1942’s Ride ‘Em Cowboy, a comedy-western starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

7. She got some help from Marilyn Monroe.

“I owe Marilyn Monroe a real debt,” Fitzgerald said in a 1972 interview in Ms. Magazine. “It was because of her that I played the Mocambo, a very popular nightclub in the ’50s. She personally called the owner of the Mocambo and told him she wanted me booked immediately, and if he would do it, she would take a front table every night. She told him—and it was true, due to Marilyn’s superstar status—that the press would go wild. The owner said yes, and Marilyn was there, front table, every night. The press went overboard … After that, I never had to play a small jazz club again. She was an unusual woman—a little ahead of her times. And she didn’t know it.”

Though it has often been reported that the club’s owner did not want to book Fitzgerald because she was black, it was later explained that his reluctance wasn’t due to Fitzgerald’s race; he apparently didn’t believe that she was “glamorous” enough for the patrons to whom he catered.

8. She was the first African American woman to win a Grammy.

Ella Fitzgerald
William P. Gottlieb - LOC, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Among her many other accomplishments, in 1958 Fitzgerald became the first African American woman to win a Grammy Award. Actually, she won two awards that night: one for Best Jazz Performance, Soloist for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook, and another for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook.

9. Her final performance was at Carnegie Hall.

On June 27, 1991, Fitzgerald—who had, at that point, recorded more than 200 albums—performed at Carnegie Hall. It was the 26th time she had performed at the venue, and it ended up being her final performance.

10. She lost both of her legs to diabetes.

In her later years, Fitzgerald suffered from a number of health problems. She was hospitalized a handful of times during the 1980s for everything from respiratory problems to exhaustion. She also suffered from diabetes, which took much of her eyesight and led to her having to have both of her legs amputated below the knee in 1993. She never fully recovered from the surgery and never performed again. She passed away at her home in Beverly Hills on June 15, 1996.

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