The Editor's Choice


Electrifying Your Target Audience: Advertising Medicines in the Nineteenth Century

Whilst I attempt to accept that “’tis no longer the season to be jolly” and I begin to tackle the pile of leftover Christmas chocolates on my desk, I’ve been looking back at some of my favourite documents from the projects I worked on in 2015. One that vividly stands out is a pamphlet titled ‘The Best Known Curative Agent: Pulvermacher's Electric Belts and Bands for Self-Application’ from our Popular Medicine in America, 1800-1900 resource. Published around 1890, the pamphlet is a wonderful example of the developing spectacle of advertising during the nineteenth century and the way in which this was cultivated through advertising for proprietary (and often “quack”) medicines.


The pamphlet's front cover depicting stately figures wearing Pulvermacher's belts and bands. Image © Library Company of Philadelphia. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

The pamphlet proclaims that Pulvermacher’s galvanic-current generating device is a “panacea” for a variety of ailments, including impotency, paralysis, and indigestion, and it pulls out all the stops to make sure this is believable. It features reams of opinions from the press, testimonials from cured patients, lists of scientific and medical publications and “well-known authorities” which have endorsed the device, as well as testimonials from “Eminent Medical Professors”. There’s a letter purportedly from (or sent on behalf of) Charles Dickens requesting a belt as a remedy for neuralgia in his foot. There’s also a copy of a handwritten testimonial noting the device’s “great importance to scientific medicine” which is signed by a number of Queen Victoria’s physicians!

Image © Library Company of Philadelphia. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

These are clever strategies, if somewhat transparent, but what really caught my eye was a certificate of award from Philadelphia’s Centennial International Exposition in 1876. The pamphlet’s front cover proudly states “Pulvermacher’s electric belts and bands have been rewarded at all the great world expositions of Europe and America”, and it also includes a Juror’s Report from the Cincinnati Industrial Exposition in 1879 where the Pulvermacher Galvanic Company’s devices “received the only award of merit”.

Image © Library Company of Philadelphia. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

As I’m also currently working on Adam Matthew’s forthcoming World’s Fairs: A Global History of Expositions resource, I marvelled at this coincidence. I shouldn’t really have been surprised: World’s Fairs were instrumental in popularising the modern technologies which today we take for granted – the television, the telephone, the X-Ray machine and baby incubators are just four examples of inventions which were showcased at fairs and made accessible to the public. World’s Fairs were powerful platforms not only for presenting new discoveries, but for presenting them as a spectacle. For products such as Pulvermacher’s devices, an exhibit at a World's Fair would have been incredibly lucrative for the company whilst also opening up new avenues for advertising, moving them one step closer to the billboards, product placements and teleshopping channels of today.

To see this document in the collection, click here.

Full access to Popular Medicine in America is restricted to authenticated institutions who have purchased a license.

The World’s Fairs: A Global History of Expositions resource will be published in spring 2016.

For more information about these resources, including trial access and price enquiries, please send an email to

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