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Tuesday, September 8, 2009

If You Have Trouble Blowing Out Birthday Candles ...

It seems that people in the late 1870s didn't want to exercise any more than they do today. This advertising trade card explained that more than half of the "human family" was suffering from one form of lung disease or another. Tuberculosis, known then as Consumption, was indeed killing a great many. It seemed to be literally consuming those it afflicted: they became deathly thin, pale, and frail; they had no energy. In advanced stages, their lungs withered and they spit up blood.

The J. S. McNeil & Co. of New York City knew there was a big market for a product that promised to restore the lungs to good health. They decided that lung diseases were being caused by people not getting enough healthful exercise. So they used a time-honored solution: if you can't make people do something, trick them into doing it.

They made breathing fun. As this young lad is demonstrating, one simply needed to blow into one end of the long flexible tube to cause the machine to do something. My guess is that the smaller round disk on the top would spin around and rise up on the pole as it did so. The speed and height of the revolutions was determined by the air pressure of the blowing the person was doing on the other end of the tube.

The ad copy promises that people never tired of the apparatus, which combined healthful exercise with fun and amusement. Something fun that would increase lung capacity - sounds great. I can imagine people competing with each other, taking turns blowing into the tube to see who can make the disk turn faster and go higher. Victorians of the late 19th century were fascinated by new inventions, new amusements, and easy, inexpensive ways to improve health, which is to say they were very much like we are today. What they did not yet understand was that the bacteria teaming in and on the tube could end up killing them.

A sample form of the machine could be ordered for a mere 12 cents. Cheap enough, but today a policeman will let you blow into a breathalyzer machine for free!

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