Everthing Old is New Again!

I have as much of a sense of nostalgia as anyone.  I love history.  I think that there is lots to be said about the “good old days,” whenever the heck they were.  I do not, however, think that the “good old days” generally include medicine.

nostalgiaThe fact is that it’s only been about 100 or so years since medical practitioners really got their acts together and started to be able to figure out if they were actually doing anything good.  Prior to that, medicine was a world of humo(u)rs and miasms, treated by bleeding, burning, and purging, plants and animal matter of all sorts (the 6th century Chinese apparently liked otter feces) and all sorts of other awfulness.  In light of some of the things that were done, it’s kind of amazing that anyone survived their treatments.  Mostly, people (and horses) survived in spite of the crazy things that were done to them.

Nevertheless, in those wild and wooly days of yesteryear, enterprising medical entrepreneurs turned out an endless stream of products, with some pretty fantastic claims.  They designed some absolutely artistic advertising cards to go along with those claims, too.  These trade cards surged onto the scene in the 1870’s, coinciding with the advent of color printing.

Look as hard as you’d like – you won’t find any of those products today.  But the claims?  Well, the claims are still around, and they’re pretty much the same as they were 100+ years ago!  Seriously, today, you will find people making the same ridiculous claims for their particular nostrums as they did over a century ago.  Here are some examples -

1.  Are you worried about your horse’s blood being impure?  According to an archaic and somewhat ridiculous line of thinking, “impurities” of the blood are one serious problem.  Of course, no one ever says what those impurities might be, but, no worries, you can get the blood purified anyway!  And, according to a modern text on veterinary herbal medicine, the herbs turmeric and sweet Basil are “Blood purifiers”  – Wynn, S and Fougère, B.  Veterinary Herbal Medicine, 2007, p. 69.

You could have purchased this “blood purifier” over 100 years ago!

2.  Worried about pain?  Why not try some “essential oils?”  According to the website, “The Holistic Horse,” essential oils of peppermint and eucalyptus are a must!  It’s hard to say what the oils are essential for – certainly not for the relief of pain!  There’s certainly nothing wrong with the pungent smells of eucalyptus or peppermint, and, of course, peppermint is a popular flavoring agent.

Of course, oils as pain relievers are nothing new.  If you wanted to buy some pain oil in 1897, you could!  Who knew that people would still be buying this stuff 127 years later?

KidneyandLiverRemedy3.  Concerned that your horse’s kidneys need rejuvenating?  Don’t worry if you didn’t know that they weren’t juvenile enough – inventing problems is one of the great ways to come up with a cure.  If you’re concerned, just go to the website for WolfCreek Ranch and pick up some “Kidney Rejuvenator.” In case other members of your menagerie have problems, it also works on elephants and giraffes.

Or, if you were around 127 years ago, you could have picked up some Hunt’s Remedy.  Not only was it “Never Known to Fail,” you could take care of a lot of other stuff, a sort of one stop medical shop.  I’ve never seen a medicine that never failed – I wonder why you can’t buy any today?  After all, it was good for your cattle, hogs, and poultry, too!

4.  Worried about your horse’s condition?  Who wouldn’t be?  If so, why not try “Pink Powder?” As advertised by Wessex Animal Health in the UK, “For everyday equine life, Pink Powder maintains perfect condition.”

TradeCardsOr, perhaps you might be persuaded by this ad, from 1905?


Look, medical conditions occur for specific reasons.  Horses don’t have unnamed “toxins” circulating around in their body, their blood doesn’t need to be “purified,” their kidneys don’t need “rejuvenating,” and as long as you feed them properly, their “condition” will generally be just fine.  If you look at most any of the claims made for supplements, you’ll find that, at the bottom of it all, they’re pretty much nonsense.

Don’t expect that some untested over-the-counter product that you can buy in a bucket in the feed store is going to somehow bring health and longevity to your horse (or any other animal that you want to take care of.  The best way to do that is REALLY old-fashioned – it was known even prior to glitzy advertising and vague promises – through good feed, regular exercise, and attention to a few routine health details (such as deworming, and vaccination).

Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!


Posted in: History, Science and Medicine

Leave a Comment (15) ↓

15 thoughts on “Everthing Old is New Again!

  1. CC says:

    The medical claims aren’t the only things wrong there… Horses don’t run that way!

  2. ConspicuousCarl says:

    # CC on 11 Aug 2011 at 6:24 am

    The medical claims aren’t the only things wrong there… Horses don’t run that way!

    Maybe YOUR horses don’t run like that, what with their mature kidneys and intoxicated blood. But jam some Cary’s Buckeye Powder up their noses, and they will be sprinting like greyhounds in no time at all.

    David Ramey said:
    I think that there is lots to be said about the “good old days,” whenever the heck they were.

    I am not sure why this doesn’t come up in PubMed (must be a database problem?), but the research has already determined exactly when that was…

    ‘Good Old Days’ Traced Back To Single Weekend In 1948

    October 8, 2010 | ISSUE 46•40,18210/

  3. Dile E. Tante says:

    Very funny! Thanks for starting my day off with a good laugh.

  4. CC says:

    Oh dear, that must be it. All the horses I’ve seen must have positively antiquated kidneys to make them unable to stretch out so much.

  5. The horse remedies were probably different from the remedies aimed at humans – which mostly achieved favorable effects through ethyl alcohol.

    Nostalgia: I remember watching “Walton’s Mountain,” with those two prim-and-proper older lady neighbors who would have to go for a little “remedy” every evening. I think they had learned from their father how to run the ‘still.

    Geritol may be the only remaining remedy like this.

  6. lizditz says:

    Thanks PonyDoc for the trip down memory lane.

    For those of you who aren’t around horses or the equestrian industry, it is a cesspool of pseudoscience and sCAM.

    It was equine sCAM that turned me from a shruggie to a woo-fighter, when my trainer demanded all her clients have their horses evaluated by an equine cranio-sacral practitioner (not a DVM), and keep the practitioner on retainer at $xxx a month…

    *equine magnetic blankets & leg wraps for a mere $765
    *equine chiropractic
    *equine acupuncture
    *equine homeopath
    *equine spiritual healing (healing the horse’s spirit, silly)
    *healing horses with crystals

    the list goes on endlessly

  7. Jimmylegs says:

    Even though this is about horses mainly, I’m positive you can find an archive of old ads for OTC medicine that makes wild claims like these.

    It would be very interesting to see someone set up a booth that’s designed to inform the public about sCAM and other items that claim to help your health (like supplements) that is built like an old timey ad. Have all kinds of posters like “Parasites to help you shed those pounds!”

    Informative and funny post Ramey.

  8. Jan Willem Nienhuys says:

    I don’t know about impure horse’s blood, but it is my understanding that ‘impure blood’ used to be a euphemism for syphilis (itself a euphemism thought up in 1530). Before Salvarsan (1909) there was basically no cure for syphilis (mercury compounds being almost equally poisonous for Treponema pallidum as for the patient), so there was a huge market for ‘blood purification’.

    Around the beginning of the 20th century many nostrums were for unnamed ‘secret diseases’.

    In some non-therapeutic contexts ‘impure blood’ may mean the blood of the enemy or menstrual blood.

  9. Calli Arcale says:

    Jimmylegs — I’m contemplating a trip to House on the Rock in the near future, a really bizarre place in south-central Wisconsin. Really, it can’t be described. It appears in the book “American Gods”, and Neil Gaiman still has readers express disbelief that he didn’t make it up or even embellish it. (If anything, it’s weirder.) It’s a tourist trap, to be sure, but a very peculiar one.

    Anyway, among it’s many bizarre (and often fabricated) collections is a collection of patent medicine bottles, products, and advertisements. I don’t think they actually made these up, as on my last visit, I recognized a few from reading about turn-of-the-century quackery. You are right — there are definitely some interesting OTC quack advertisements. And devices, too.

    The Science Museum of Minnesota in St Paul inherited the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices entire collection when the curator of the original museum had to retire due to illness, but sadly are not always able to display much of it. Last time I was there, all of the pieces were in storage, displaced by the large, traveling King Tut exhibit. (Even sadder, the founder, Bob McCoy, who gave up his collection to the SMM, has since passed away of his illness — Alzheimer’s.) But the pieces are very interesting to see. They even have an Orgone Accumulator!

    The Bakken Library, located in Minneapolis, is another nice place for checking out claims of a bygone era, though their focus is on electricity in particular (and not limited to medical applications). They have some interesting pieces, some of which are legitimate medical devices, and some of which are not. It’s more of a historical look than a critical one. It’s named for Earl Bakken, inventor of the first battery-powered transistor pacemaker, which likely explains the fascination with the history of electricity in medicine.

  10. CC says:

    I don’t want to derail the conversation here, but I’ve been trying for a while to get the “shruggie” link above to load. It comes back with a blank page in my browser, whether I click it here or click on the “continue reading” link in the site’s archives, after reading the post intro.

    I seem able to load other articles without any difficulty. Even the articles immediately before and after the “shruggie” article load just fine.

  11. ConspicuousCarl says:

    I can’t get it to work either. All hail the wAyBaCk MaChInE!!!

  12. Lytrigian says:

    Man. Nostalgia sure ain’t what it used to be.

  13. Tell it like it is says:


    This calls for a quick quiz

    1 What did the Ancient Egyptians try to cure with a potion made from pigs’ eyeballs?

    a) Stomach ache
    b) Fever
    c) Blindness

    2 What was drilling a hole in a persons’ skull an Ancient French cure for?

    a) Earache
    b) Headache
    c) Stomach ache

    3 The Frenchman Antoine Lavoisier is recognised as ‘The father of modern medicine’. How did he die?

    a) He accidentally poisoned himself
    b) In his sleep
    c) On the guillotine

    4 Which scientist created ‘germ paintings’ using living bacteria?

    a) Antoine Lavoisier
    b) Alexander Fleming
    c) Albert Einstein

    6 Why did women in the 1930’s swallow live tapeworms whole?

    a) To cure stomach ache
    b) To lose weight
    c) To stop their breath smelling

    7 The dead horse arum plant gives off the smell of decaying horse to lure which creature to pollinate it?

    a) Dogs
    b) Horses
    c) Blowflies

    Penn Jillette in a recent interview with Kevin Pereira “The idea of a ‘faith’ that you can’t demonstrate to others leaves out the rest of the world.”

    Answers: on Monday – have a good weekend

  14. Scott says:

    Oh joy. More meaningless off-topic spam.

  15. LMA says:

    So sad to hear about Bob McCoy’s death from such a terrible illness; I frequented the online Museum of Questionable Devices on a regular basis in the early days of the Web — it was one of my first skeptical thinking related bookmarks.

    My parents used to collect antiques in New England back in the ’60s and ’70s so I grew up with an entire wall of patent medicine bottles to study while in the “reading room.” My favorite was always “Miss Lydia Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound,” which was a hefty spoonful of alcohol with various roots I’d never heard of like “black cohosh.” One skinny brown bottle was full of “Jamaican Black Rum” with a sadly not-unexpected racist portrait of a spear-wielding black man in a grass skirt. Of course, given that the white patients who bought it were swallowing coal tar, mercury and alcohol as a cure-all for syphilis and other “blood diseases” so if karma were a real thing, I guess everything would have come out even. She has a bottle of “Hunt’s Remedy” too — like most of the bottles, the brand name and city of manufacturing is molded right into the glass. It’s funny (or maybe sad) when you consider that more actual applied science went into the production of the different, complicated shapes of the bottles than into the “cures” inside.

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