One of my most fertile areas for historical information and entertainment are old newspapers and periodicals. In my research of the Jerrems family I have read many pages of these publications, and have recorded some of the best examples of unintended humour. Here is some of my collection, but first, an explanation of my first significant experience in this area.
My first experience with historic publications
My first significant experience with historic publications (ie issued in the 19th Century and up to the First World War) occurred in unusual circumstances. In the 1960s I bushwalked on the weekends in the mountains west of Sydney. On occasions I stopped at a particular stockman's hut for shelter. It was a very old unused hut consisting of a single room, an open fireplace, walls made of planks sawn from hardwood logs, and a corrugated iron roof. These thick planks ran vertically, with the big cracks filled with plaster. Layers of pages of newspapers were glued over the planks to keep the plaster in place and to stop the wind from coming through the unfilled cracks. Who needed books to pass the evening hours when the walls were covered with newspapers and one could read them by the flickering light of a candle!
These newspapers were dated in the 1890s. They described local events and had a wide range of advertisements, including furniture, utensils, farm equipment, food and medical items. The medical advertisements were particularly interesting and often humorous, although they were of course not intended by the authors to be humorous. They also illustrate the medical advances that have occurred in the intervening century.
Conversely, they demonstrate why so many of our Jerrems ancestors died prematurely, the most graphic being the family of James Jerrems (see Journal of July 2008) , where two of his wives and almost half his children died from causes which would probably now be preventable. Closer to home for me, in my grandfather's family three of my grandfather's six siblings died at birth or in early childhood in the 1880s.
The newspapers also demonstrate why many of our ancestors would have suffered from ongoing afflictions which would have seriously affected their quality of life.
The Sydney Bulletin
Probably the most famous periodical in Australia's history was "The Bulletin", which sadly went out of business last year. Set out below some extracts from The Bulletin for the period 1880 to 1900, and US newspapers for the period 1880 to 1920, followed in some cases by my comments in italics. You will see that I have placed the items in categories. Many of the items had illustrations which I have not attempted to copy.
Treatment using massage
Mr TEEPOO HALL, Masseur, 117 COLLINS STREETEAST, MELBOURNE Is prepared to attend Patients suffering from Rheumatism, Partial Paralysis, Sciatica, Fits, Spinal Troubles, Gout, Hysteria, St Vitus' Dance, Lumbago, and other Cognate Diseases of the Joints, Muscles etc. Testimonials from 30 leading medical men. Pamphlets forwarded on receipt of three stamps. (Bulletin)
Sounds good, nothing like a good massage! But modern masseurs might find it difficult to cure fits, gout and hysteria.
Treatment of coughs and colds
To Fortify the System Against Grip. When grip is prevalent LAXATIVE BROMO QUININE should be taken, as this combination of Quinine with other ingredients destroys germs, acts as a Tonic and a Laxative and thus keeps the system in condition to withstand Colds, Grip and Influenza. (Sandusky Star-Journal, Jan 20, 1916 (Ohio).
Sounds like a very roundabout way of treating colds and flu. Our readers of mature age will remember that the archaic practice of administering laxatives and purgatives was still quite popular when they were young, a practice carried out for centuries. It was apparently based on the theory that they "kept the system in condition" (borrowing from the above advertisement). Fortunately my mother did not believe in them. Some families still have grim memories of how they were lined up for their weekly dose of castor oil (often in a dark blue bottle), usually on a Saturday morning, and spent the rest of the morning taking it in turns to go to the toilet.
GET RID OF A RACKING GRIPPE- COUGH. IT WEAKENS. For the severe racking cough that comes with la grippe Foley's Honey and Tar Compound is wonderfully healing and soothing. It eases the tightness over the chest, raises the phlegm easily,and helps the racking cough that is so exhausting and weakening. (Sandusky Star-Journal, Jan 20, 1916 (Ohio).
I love honey but would draw the line at tar! Tar belongs on roads.
OLD TIME COLD CURE-DRINK HOT TEA!
Get a small package of Hamburg Brenst Tea at our pharmacy. Take a tablespoon of the tea, tip a cup of boiling water on it, pour through a sieve and drink a tea cup full at any time of the day or before retiring. It is the most effective way to break a cold and cure grip, as it opens the pores of the skin and reduces congestion. Also loosens the bowels, thus breaking up a cold.
Try it the next time you suffer from a cold or the grip. It is inexpensive and entirely vegetable, therefore mild and harmless. (Sandusky Star-Journal, Jan 20, 1916 (Ohio).
Now that sounds better than laxatives! I like a good cup of tea.
BEST WAY TO CURE COLD IN CHEST
Doctors advise not to allow cold in chest or sore throat to hang on. Pneumonia offtimes results. The minute your chest or throat shows signs of soreness rub on true Mustarine, which only costs about 25 cents, and which any druggist can give you in the original yellow box. It stops pain and congestion and there's blessed relief in every rub.
The Begy Medicine Co of Rochester NY makes true Mustarine and tens of thousands use it because it acts so quickly and is so much better than liniments or internal remedies. (Sandusky Star-Journal, Jan 20, 1916 Ohio)
This sounds good also, but did it have mustard in it? Mustard poultices were popular.
Treatment for nerves
NERVOUS PEOPLE SHOULD EAT CELERY
The old fashioned idea that celery is good for the nerves doubtless has considerable justification, for celery, particularly the root, if eaten regularly in fair quantities unquestionably has nerve tonic properties. (Source not recorded).
This has a beautiful simplicity but would be noisy. Not recommended when you are in a theatre or church.
Treatment of female maladies
WHEN WOMEN SUFFER
It is a sign of dangerous weakness and disease. Pain is always unnatural, and if you a victim of headache, backache, sideache, pain in shoulders, arms, legs, calves,or suffer from cramps, falling feelings, grinding feelings, restlessness, the blues etc it is a sign that you need the gentle assistance which can be obtained by taking WINE OF CARDUI Woman's Relief.
At Every Drug Store in $1.00 Bottles. (The Decatur Review, 1/4/06, (Illinois)
Treatment of male maladies
WEAKENED by youthful folly, excesses or any other cause. GUARANTEED CURE. A Great Scientific Discovery by Anatomy. Treatise on "Lost Manhood" posted free, sealed. To young men contemplating marriage, to the married, to young and old-this book is invaluable, pointing out as it does the way of relief to those unfortunate sufferers to whom love is but a hideous, tormenting dream-life a torture-the future a blank! Every man and youth should read it. Posted free. Write Prof. HERMANN, French Specialist, 41 Collins Place East, MELBOURNE. (Bulletin)
ATROPHY in Men
Wasted or shrunken parts of the Human Body ENLARGED and DEVELOPED to normal size and vigour by the Electro-Vacuum process. Instant benefit- A benefit that you feel, know and admit the very first hour of its use. Send for descriptive book, posted sealed, 6 stamps. Address J. HINTON-WILLIS. Cnr. Bourke and Liverpool Sts, Melb. (Bulletin)
I will leave it to the reader to decide on the uses of this this machine!
Treatment of children's maladies
A Child's Health KICKAPOO WORM KILLER (The Decatur Review, 7/4/05 (Illinois).
Unfortunately I could not decipher the rest of the advert.
Hygenic, Infallible and Preservative. CURES PROMPTLY, without ADDITIONAL MEANS.
SOLD in PARIS by J.FERRE (Successor to Brou), pharmacist, 102 Rue Richelieu, and in Australia by all Chemists. (Bulletin)
Query what did it do? This would qualify as just about the least informative cure I have seen.
The health-giving properties of beer, wine and spirits
The advertisements for alcohol were surprisingly understated, and often relied on pictures of sportsmen. At least they did not have exaggerated claims of the benefits of alcohol. As a result I have drawn on my own experience to tell you about a modern product called Dr Jurd's Jungle Juice. I first encountered this product at an orienteering contest in the NSW Hunter Valley. Here is what I wrote at the time:
Following Doctor's orders
Orienteers are normally very healthy, and (naturally) always follow doctor's orders. This was proved beyond doubt at an orienteering event in Wollombi Valley in 1974. A large number of contestants camped out the night before near the start area and enjoyed a campfire. Some more adventurous souls, including the promising Elizabeth Atkin, decided to sample the local camaraderie at the Wollombi Pub, some miles (via a devious route) down the road.
It was there that they discovered the medicinal qualities of a local product called Doctor Jurd's Jungle Juice, allegedly some relative to muscat (a fortified wine). Elizabeth and her carload of companions became so convinced of its medicinal qualities, as described on the bottles by the eminent Doctor Jurd, that they drank quite a lot of it. In this they were encouraged by the convivial locals who invited them to take part in a singalong.
In due course Elizabeth and her companions were feeling so healthy from imbibing the Jungle Juice that they decided to return to the campsite, but they lost their way completely and ended up sleeping the night in the car in a paddock. They arrived rather sheepishly at the campsite in the morning, looking rather the worse for wear, just as we were getting worried. Happily (and perhaps surprisingly) Elizabeth demonstrated the health giving qualities of the product by coming third in the Senior Women's event!
Snake oil and goanna oil
No dissertation on bygone medicines would be complete without mentioning snake oil and goanna oil, two products which have achieved almost legendary status in the annals of (respectively) the US and Australia.
Wikipedia tells us that snake oil is a traditional Chinese medicine made from the Chinese Water Snake (Enhydris chinensis), which is used to treat joint pain.
The Great Yaquis advertisement for rattlesnake oil (made in San Francisco, California and Portland, Oregon) gives an idea of the ailments the US products were claimed to cure. Applied externally it would cure (amongst other things) headache, neuralgia, toothache, earache, backache, sprains, sore chest, stiff joints, dislocations, cuts and bruises. Taken internally it would cure rheumatism, sciatica and deafness. All for 50 cents a bottle!
The Wikipedia article tells us that overblown claims for medical uses of snake oil led to common usage of the phrase "snake oil" as a derogatory term for quack medicine. The expression is also applied metaphorically to any product with exaggerated marketing but questionable and/or unverifiable quality or benefit.
The snake oil peddler became a stock character in Western movies: a travelling "doctor" with dubious credentials, selling some medicine (such as snake oil) with boisterous marketing hype, often supported by pseudo-scientific evidence, typically bogus. To increase sales, an accomplice in the crowd (a "shill") would often "attest" the value of the product in an effort to provoke buying enthusiasm. The "doctor" would prudently leave town before his customers realized that they had been cheated. Records of the sale of snake oil in the US date back to the 1720s.
Although goanna oil was not promoted so energetically in Australia as snake oil, it was reputedly used initially by aboriginals and, later, early white settlers in Australia. Similarly to snake oil, it was used for a wide range of ailments. Farmers of yesteryear also used it on their horses and working bullocks, and it was supposedly used on the axles of carts and waggons.
Stories of the ability of goanna oil to penetrate skin and permeate muscles were perpetuated by yarns that it had to be kept in bottles which had glass stoppers because it would seep through normal stoppers such as corks. Some yarns went even further, saying that goanna oil is so good that if you put it in a glass jar and sat it on a shelf after a while there would be a film of oil under the glass jar as the oil worked its way through the glass.
Goanna oil can still be purchased in Australia. Faulding Healthcare P/L make Herron Goanna Oil. Devotees can buy a 150 ml bottle for $8-75. I remember using it as a liniment for rubbing on sore muscles. My conclusion at the time was that the massaging was probably the best aspect.
When I read the medical advertisements I have mixed emotions of amusement tinged with sadness that they demonstrate why many of our ancestors suffered from fatal or chronic ailments which are now curable.