October 12, 2016
Various “magnetic” balms, oils, and other products were common in America, especially during the nineteenth century and before the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 (effective January 1907). I have already discussed Prof. Long’s Magnetic Comb, which allegedly stopped falling hair and cured headaches (Nickell 2016). There were numerous magnetic gadgets, but here we look at “magnetic” medicines.
Usage of the word stemmed from the generalized meaning of “magnetick” which (according to an old dictionary in my collection) meant “having powers correspondent to those of the magnet, attractive” (Cobb’s 1836, 275). The word also suggested animal magnetism which was synonymous with mesmerism (i.e., hypnosis, after Anton Mesmer, 1733–1815, the early experimenter in that field). Magnetic became a pseudoscientific buzz-word, just like later ones, for such products as “Electric Brand Bitters,” “Electro-Magnetic Liniment” and, more recently, “Atomic” diet pills (Fike 2006, 33, 134).
A chief proponent of such cure-alls was the D. Ransom, Son & Co. of Buffalo, New York. Its proprietors gave to potential customers Ransom’s Family Receipt Book (I have the booklets of 1886 and 1920) which combined popular recipes with ads for the company’s medicines. A mainstay was Dr. A. Trask’s Magnetic Ointment—originally introduced in 1846 by S. Bull of New York state. In 1864, David Ransom became sole proprietor for that product (Fike 2006, 198).
Trask’s ointment, Ransom claimed, “in removing diseases, is unequalled in the annals of medicine.” It relieved “affections of the spine, Rheumatism, Lameness . . . Cholera Morbus,” and more, including “Diphtheria” (by which was meant “Putrid Sore Throat”), as well as such lesser ailments as acne, piles, burns, fever sores, and the like. Testimonials from two aging physicians accompanied the claims (Ransom’s 1886, 2, 4).
Another Ransom product was “Dr. J.R. Miller’s Universal Magnetic Balm”—first introduced by Miller in Syracuse in the 1860s. A bottle, from my collection, is pictured here. (Of aqua glass, hand-blown in a mold, it measures about 13/4’’ by 7/8’’ by 413/16’’ high.) Such unembossed bottles could be used for other products as well. Long the sole proprietor, Ransom promised, “It cures, as if by MAGNETIC INFLUENCE, Neuralgia and all pain, and is therefore very properly termed ‘Magnetic Balm.’” Moreover, “It is purely a vegetable preparation. It has no equal as a remedy for Cholera, Cholera Morbus, Diarrhea, Dysentry, Colic, and all Bowel Complains. Its timely use will cure Colds, Quinsy, and all throat affections attended with pain.” It was also for sick headache, toothache, earache, bellyache, etc. (Ransom 1886, 26). Not surprisingly, it was 56% alcohol (Fike 2006, 20).
However, Ransom was not alone in the magnetic medicine business. There was I.L. St. John whose Magnetic Oil label promised, “Cures Rheumatism, Neuralgia, and Headache” (advertised in 1879 by I.L. St. John & Co., Tiffin City, Ohio). A remedy for the inflammation of mucous membranes (especially of the nose and throat) was Mayers’ Magnetic Catarrh Cure (advertised as early as 1910). Another product, Sheldon’s Magnetic Liniment, is thought to have been offered by a Boston physician, Dr. Leonard L. Sheldon, in the 1870s. As well, Wilson’s Magnetic Vegetable Ointment was advertised in 1887, and A. Wright’s American Magnetic Pile Ointment in 1895. Then there was Dr. Jerome Horn’s” Magnetic Healing Baths,” a bottled concoction containing “Galvanic Fluid” (sold at San Francisco, ca. 1883–1888) (Fike 2006, 102, 137, 166, 196, 197, 198).
Whatever the actual effect of these products, the main “magnetic” property of some may have been drawing cash out of the pockets of suffering folk. Perhaps, in return, the medicines did seem to alleviate the symptoms of some in a “magnetic” (hypnotic suggestion) sort of way.
Cobb’s Abridgment of J. Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary. . . . 1836. Ithaca, NY: Mack, Andrus and Woodruff.
Fike, Richard E. 2006. The Bottle Book: A Comprehensive Guide to Historic, Embossed Medicine Bottles. Caldwell, NJ: The Blackburn Press.
Nickell, Joe. 2016. “Magnetic” Comb Cured Headache? Online at https://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/show/magnetic_comb_cured_headache/; accessed September 22, 2016.
Ransom’s Family Receipt Book. 1886. Buffalo, NY: D. Ransom, Son & Co.