Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Strange Victorian Remedies

by Lynne Wilson

As 19th century Britain’s economy grew, the use of advertising to sell products greatly expanded. Due to the expense involved in a visit to the doctor, one such area in which advertising became popular was with remedies and cures for everyday ailments which people could purchase relatively cheaply and administer themselves. With very few restrictions on the claims that could be made, many seemingly miraculous cures appeared for sale. Although some of these remedies had some scientific basis, others were, unfortunately for the unwitting buyer, completely useless. On researching my book ‘A Year in Victorian Edinburgh’ I came across some weird and wonderful examples of both useful and useless remedies, in the form of newspaper advertisements from 1869. Here are a few of these examples:

Sulphur was thought to cure many ailments, including Cholera, of which there had been several outbreaks previously. Sulphur could be taken in the form above or alternatively, another popular method in the 19th century was to ‘Take the waters’, in the form of visiting spas or drinking mineral waters containing iron, copper or sulphur to cure common ailments such as rheumatism, arthritis, overindulgence and respiratory disorders such as asthma.

With all forms of bathing being popular in the Victorian era, many establishments such as the one below opened. ‘Galvanic baths’, which were though to have health giving properties, were baths in which an electric current was passed through the water and hence, through the body. Turkish baths worked on the principle of sweating out all impurities and then washing them away.

The use of electricity in treatments was often popular, and another means by which it was utilised was in applying currents to nerve points via a battery and cables, such as the treatment advertised below. It was believed that “life-giving force” of electricity could relieve lung diseases, inflammation of the brain or liver, rheumatism, small pox, and even cure drunkenness! Victorian innovators would claim that these illnesses could be cured simply by wearing these electric belts or sitting in a magnetically charged room.

By far the most common type of advertisement however, seems to be aimed at people’s insecurity or vanity regarding either loss of hair or greying hair colour. In the Edinburgh Evening Courant newspaper in 1869, an advertisement appeared for ‘Luxuriant and Beautiful Hair’ – ‘Miss S. S. Allen’s World’s Hair Restorer or Dressing never fails to quickly restore grey or faded hair to its youthful colour and beauty. It stops the hair from falling off. It prevents baldness. It promotes luxuriant growth. It causes the hair to grow thick and strong. It removes all dandruff.’ Many other advertisements promised equally astounding results.

Although on the face of it, these seem like fairly harmless, albeit utterly ineffective remedies, the reality was that some of these products had ingredients which were toxic to varying degrees, as an article in The Edinburgh Evening Courant newspaper shows: ‘Poisonous Lotions for the Hair’ – ‘Nothing is more extraordinary than the irrational credulity of even educated, intelligent persons, in accepting a tradesman’s puff as a genuine warranty. When, for instance, will people be warned against the use of poisonous hair dyes? It can be no secret that white lead is the chief ingredient in the black dyes now so largely sold. Paralysis, in a more or less severe form, is the inevitable consequence of applying these lotions to the hair.’

Thankfully, by the end of the Victorian era, things were began to improve, with restrictions on the sale of poisons and more analysis being carried out by reputable retailers such as ‘Boots the Chemist’, to determine the safety of products for sale. However, it wasn’t until the start of the 20th century that greater scrutiny of these products came into existence and manufacturers began to be prosecuted for fraudulent claims.

All Images Courtesy of The Scotsman Archives

By Lynne Wilson, author of the historical non fiction ebooks 'A Year in
Victorian Edinburgh' and 'Crime & Punishment in Victorian Edinburgh'; and the paperback, 'Murder & Crime in Stirling'.

Read more about Lynne Wilson HERE.

Lynne is also the creator and editor of Scotland History Uncovered


  1. Very interesting! Particularly how some things never change - advertisements aimed at people's insecurity or vanity regarding either loss of hair or greying hair colour!
    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Fascinating stuff! The book sounds like a good read.

  3. My first marriage (I was only 20) was into a family where the grandfather was in his nineties. He told me one day he'd cured his rheumatism back in the 30's by putting his hand on the battery of a tractor while it was running... He could also cure warts by burying a piece of the person's clothing, and while doing it, performed a ritual of sorts. He never allowed anyone to see this, and went to his death without passing the information on to anyone.

  4. I'm surprised people survived the cures. Fascinating stufff!

  5. This sounds very familiar to lots of remedies today, huh? Great post!

  6. Very interesting. I saw a couple of BBC programmes about Victorian chemists recently which were similarly fascinating. For instance many of them made their own fireworks for sale, and one chemist, a Mr Bird I believe, invented and marketed a woderful - and totally harmless - medicine called custard!

  7. eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeew


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