I have been under the weather lately, with a late-winter head cold from hell. But when I went to the exhibition of vintage medical posters at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Health for Sale, my condition improved dramatically.
Perhaps it was the sight of the color lithograph advertising Sparklet Nasal inhalers that did the trick. This alarming device, looking like a combination of a hot water bottle and a welder’s torch, injected a current of dry carbon dioxide to the mucous membrane of the remarkably composed young lady in the ad, c. 1900.
“Guerit radicalement les Rhumes de Cerveau” literally means “completely heals head colds.” A more accurate translation might be “whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you strong.”
Quite a few laughs like this are included in the Health for Sale exhibition. But these historical prints from the William Helfand Collection have a serious side as well. The exhibition covers the growth of medical advertising and the promotion of public health from the opium-laced patent medicines of the 1840s to a 1985 poster for a benefit concert raising funds for AIDS research.
The prints and posters amassed by Helfand, a retired executive of the Merck pharmaceutical firm, are a key component of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s collection of Ars Medica. Medical and health care-related items are usually bypassed in the effort to preserve paintings, drawings and sculptures that constitute the primary fields of interest for museum curators. As befits a city with a rich legacy of contributions in the medical field, the Philadelphia Museum of Art is unique among major U.S. museums in supporting a collection devoted to the disciplined efforts — and quack remedies — to help people feel better.
Beginning in 1949, the Philadelphia Museum of Art launched its effort to preserve prints, drawings, photographs, posters, illustrated books, and ephemera related to medicine and health care. The last category – ephemera – is of particular interest to the Health for Sale exhibition.
Ephemera, by definition, are objects of everyday use, intended to achieve a specific, short-term goal. Movie posters, baseball cards, theater programs and tickets, all the “stuff” of modern marketing campaigns (and some, surprisingly, dating to before the Industrial Revolution), are gaining recognition as important aesthetic objects.
Designed for short-term use to promote public health or sell the latest “miracle” drug, medical posters have often been ignored. Traditionally, these posters have ranked well below the “stars” of Ars Medica collections, such as books of hand-tinted herbal remedies or anatomical drawings from the 16th century. But each of the prints in Health for Sale tells an amazing story, often confounding the expectations of the viewer.
Consider the striking image on the c. 1925 poster advertising France’s premier toothpaste, Botot Dentifrices. What seems to be a cartoonish French version of the Wicked Witch of the West actually refers to the classic 17th century comedy by Moliere, The Imaginary Invalid. According to William Helfand, who presented a guided tour of the exhibition, the wizard-like costume evokes a character from the play, Dr. Argonne. The good doctor appeared on stage, dressed in the towering hat, ruffled collar and black robe of his profession. He is not intended in the play or advertisement to be the least bit demonic, regardless of the gruesome reputation of doctors and dentists from that blood-letting, pre-anesthesia era.
Such an arcane visual reference, however, raises the question of what toothpaste and the Ancien Regime have in common. Quite a lot, actually. Botot toothpaste and mouthwash were invented by Dr. Julien Botot in 1755 for King Louis XV. These products, based on organic ingredients including ginger, cinnamon and gillyflower (from the clove family), are still available today. So, instead of portraying a smiling 1920′s flapper, the Botot company chose an image that reminded customers that Botot products were still going strong after a century and a half.
But of course, sex does sell!
The Health for Sale exhibition presents a number of images of comely young women acting as “come-ons” for over-the-counter medical products. From rosy-cheeked Chinese beauties advertising the wares of the International Dispensary Company of Shanghai during the 1930′s to the sexy British blond of the 1940′s extolling customers to Take Bile Beans for Health, Figure & Charm, these images of feminine beauty marketed ethnic and gender stereotypes as well as commercial products.
Bile Beans was a laxative invented (perhaps concocted is a better word) by a Canadian named Charles E. Fulford in the late 1800′s. Extravagant claims of its success in treating “biliousness, indigestion, constipation, rheumatism, sciatica, lumbago, gout, influenza, debility, dyspepsia, headache, insomnia, liver complaints, and piles” were a standard feature of 19th century marketing campaigns. But the Bile Beans “brand” latched onto the early 20th century sexual revolution. Ads for this product frequently showed images of attractive young women, looking rather like the original “Miss Scarlet” in the British board game “Clue.” But there is a disturbing “Aryan” feel to the hygienic sexuality on display in this 1940′s poster. Though the British fought with tooth and nail and Bile Beans to defeat the Nazis, no society is immune to the dubious charms of images of ethnic “beauty.”
If feminine “eye candy” takes center stage in the Health for Sale exhibition, quite a few of the posters, especially from the 20th century, recall public campaigns to eradicate diseases and unsanitary conditions. These ads range from the mystical to the unambiguous. The call in 1919 to finally stamp out one of the great scourges of the 19th century, The Next to Go Fight Tuberculosis!, tapped directly into the “Let’s Beat the Huns” mentality of the recently concluded Great War.
The poster advertising the International Hygiene-Exhibition Dresden May-October 1911 is an entirely different case. One could write a doctoral dissertation probing the social and psychological factors underpinning the imagery of this poster. Is fear at work here or divine providence? Does the “all-seeing” eye evoke some ancient form of neo-Platonic wisdom or is it an ominous harbinger of George Orwell’s Big Brother? Since marketing campaigns aim to manipulate the subconscious, as well as utilizing obvious, easy-to-grasp messages, either interpretation may be correct.
Advertisements that leave you bemused, like the poster for the Dresden Hygiene Exhibition, are of limited effectiveness, no matter how vivid the accompanying art work. Humor, like sexuality, is a much better marketing device. The Health for Sale exhibit shows how quickly the patent medicine industry discovered that funny animals and cute kids sold more bottled elixirs than appeals to medieval alchemy.
Dr. James Cook Ayer built a hugely profitable patent medicine company based in Lowell Massachusetts. Created in the 1840’s, Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral, which contained an opium derivative, was marketed as a cure for a host of childhood diseases like whooping cough, a deadly killer of children well into the twentieth century. With its friendly looking bears and befuddled canine patient, the imagery of the poster conveys a calming, up-beat message. The effects of taking Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral, the company’s ads proclaimed, “are magical and multitudes are annually preserved from serious illness by its timely and faithful use.”
These poster artists were often masters in the use of humor as part of a sales pitch. Leonetto Cappiello, an illustrator of exceptional talent, is particularly notable for his comic instincts. Born in Italy in 1875, Cappiello worked in France during the golden age of color lithography at the turn of the 20th century. His work was often brilliantly funny. Cappiello was equally adept at promoting Doctor Rasurel Hygienic Undergarments with a gentle humor worthy of a 1950′s family sitcom or in playing to a music hall audience’s love of broad farce. The dancing graybeard, liberated from the ravages of gout by a box of Uricure pills, is an indelible image of the human comedy. The fact that the copy for the Uricure poster on display is in Spanish shows the international scope of Cappiello’s ability.
Health for Sale concludes with an ingenious interweaving of a sense of humor and sense of wonder. Man as Industrial Palace, created by Dr. Fritz Kahn in 1926, displays human physiology as a triumph of German engineering. Each body function involved in the simple task of eating a piece of chocolate is depicted in terms of the division of labor in a modern factory. The “time and motion” mania of efficiency-minded industrial engineers in the first decades of the 20th century is raised to a surreal level of human automation.
In Kahn’s diagram, the human body’s respiration, blood circulation, digestive circuit, brain functions and metabolism all operate in collaborative harmony. But human body parts are replaced with assembly line gadgetry and communications technology. The eye functions are handled by a vintage folding camera, while a telephone switchboard doubles for the ears. Pumps, pulleys, levers, cogs, conveyor belts and spray hoses are expertly handled by a tireless team of tiny technicians, enabling the automaton to digest a chocolate bar and convert it into energy.
Kahn’s Man as Industrial Palace inspired the contemporary German artist, Henning M. Lederer, to create an animated version, which can be seen both at the Philadelphia exhibition and in an online version. Either way, Lederer’s achievement is nothing short of spectacular. Here the visual imagery of 20th century marketing encounters the “steam-punk” ethos of science fiction. Past and present melt away to create an alternate reality where humans are automated and automatons are humanized.
Will Henning Lederer’s version of Man as Industrial Palace strike a meaningful note in the search for a new sensibility? Or will it simply find a place among the lovingly preserved ephemera in the Ars Medica collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art?
The majority of the medical posters and prints collected by William Helfand were indeed marketing tools, relying on passing fancy to make a sale. But the over-all effect of this fascinating exhibition left me with hard-to-define feelings that there might have been higher forces at work here, of greater moment than selling quack remedies with pictures of pretty girls.
The image of humanity liberated from the threat of a deadly disease is a worthy theme for great art. And the humorous depiction of an old duffer strutting his stuff after gulping down Uricure is an ever timely reminder that laughter is the best form of medicine.
Health for Sale: Posters from the William H. Helfand Collection appears at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, (April 2 – July 31, 2011)