A history of magical ‘cures’

Times Staff Writer

Today’s lard-melting body belts, creams, subliminal tapes, pills and teas are just the latest in more than a century’s worth of wishful thinking, bad advice and chicanery.

Yesterday’s would-be pound shedders were barraged with ads for a host of products with names such as “Densmore’s Corpulency Cure,” “Dr. Gordon’s Elegant Pills,” “Kellogg’s Safe Fat Reducer,” “Allan’s Anti-Fat” and “The Slenmar Reducing Brush.” Other examples from this dubious, if entrepreneurial, past:

1844: Oliver Halsted’s patented Exercising Machine consisted of a pair of mechanical horses that marched in circles, aimed at relieving the rider’s dyspepsia.


1892: George Burwell’s Boston bon-contour obesity belt delivered zaps of electricity to the belly.

1900: Dr. Jean Alban Bergonie’s “passive ergotherapy” chair applied electricity to clients’ muscles, contracting them 100 times a minute -- supposedly expending energy while the patient sat back and relaxed.

1900: Ladies’ Home Journal touted two mineral waters -- Kissingen and Vichy -- to be drunk before meals on alternate days. By balancing acid and alkaline, the adherent would shed two pounds per week.

1905: The “La Grecque Corset” promised not only to shape the hips and belly but to permanently slenderize the wearer.

1910: Phytoline weight-loss tablets contained arsenic, strychnine, caffeine and pokeberries. Arsenic speeds up the digestive tract; pokeberries act as a laxative.

1914: Gardner Reducing Machines pummeled the user between two rollers, delivering a supposed fat-shedding massage.


1920s: Lucky Strike promoted its cigarettes as diet aids: “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.”

1935: An estimated 100,000 Americans tried diet pills containing dinitrophenol, a chemical used in the manufacture of dyes, insecticides and explosives. The regimen was inspired by the observation that workers in World War I munitions factories lost weight. Use fell off by 1938, after several cases of death or temporary blindness.

1943: Diet guru Marion White, author of “Diet Without Despair,” advised use of mineral oil as a fat source in meals.

1957: Human chorionic gonadotropin (a pregnancy hormone) became popular as a weight-loss aid. In 1974, the government required labels to warn against its use for dieting. It was never proven effective.


Sources: “Never Satisfied,” by Hillel Schwartz; “Fat History,” by Peter N. Stearns; “Losing It,” by Laura Fraser.