Hurrying and worrying in the struggle for success
“Neurasthenia” was the term used in the 19th and early 20th century to classify a broad swathe of illnesses, from anxiety to depression, fatigue to trauma. It was widely used across the world, but particularly in the U.S.
For more on how neurasthenia influenced literature and culture, tourism and medical policy, have a listen to episode six here
Advertisements for its cure were everywhere at this time. “Neurasthenia is a peculiarly American disease, said to be produced by our national habit of hurrying and worrying in the struggle for success” states one ad for a neurasthenia treatment in a Pennsylvania newspaper in 1921. “I was so badly run down that I was on the verge of a nervous wreck”, testifies the enthusiastic endorser of “Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills”. Having taken them, “I have practically recovered my strength. My nerves are strong and I eat and sleep well”.
Dr Williams’ Pink Pills were marketed worldwide as a cure for a huge variety of diseases, including neurasthenia and other nerve disorders. The patent was owned by a Canadian senator named George T. Fulford. Essentially they were an iron supplement but the pills were hugely successful and advertisements for them can be found in U.S. newspapers across the 1910s, 20s and 30s.
While neurasthenia was frequently diagnosed by doctors from the late 19th century onwards, by the 1920s the illness had lost much of its medical credibility. Nevertheless, it was still very much a household word and numerous companies were happy to spend large sums of money marketing their products as a cure for the illness. Ads for Dr Williams’ Pink Pills were particularly prevalent but there were so many others neurasthenia advertisements at this time. Alcohol companies, producers of other pills and tonics, a variety of electrical devices, and many more.
As you can see from the neurasthenia advertisements pictured, companies were happy to promote their products as curing any number of illnesses. These terms were all so interchangeable and unclear to begin with, it was an easy sell: “neuralgia”, “melancholy”, “hysteria”, “nervousness”, “neurasthenia”.
What becomes clear when you look at these advertisements is that neurasthenia was a great catch-all term. Doctors could look at a huge array of symptoms and give a specific name to the illness. Patients could be happy that their illness had a path towards a cure. And, of course, anyone looking to make a little money could cash in on the vague symptoms and even vaguer claims of their pills, tonics, or electrical devices.
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