Electric Belts and Other Electrifying Health Aides

Electricity has long been a popular healer. In the 18th century, upper class people in the United States and Europe attended dramatic electrical performances as entertainment. The therapeutic uses of electricity were not just for the elite, however, extending all the way down to the lower classes.

Ancient Romans knew of the healing power of electricity. They prescribed the application of black torpedo fish, a kind of electric ray, to numb pain. Scribonius Largus, Emperor Claudius’ physician, was a staunch advocate of the remedy: “To immediately remove and permanently cure a headache, however long-lasting and intolerable, a live black torpedo is put on the place which is in pain, until the pain ceases and the part grows numb.”

The discovery of the Leyden jar – a way of storing up static electricity – in the 18th century allowed shocks to be delivered in a more forceful way. Soon after, Italian physician and scientist Luigi Galvani’s experiments activating the nerves in the legs of a dead frog seemed to suggest that electricity and life were intimately connected. If electricity restored life, suddenly, toothaches, back pain, headaches – just about any ailment seemed like it could be cured by the application of electricity. It ignited an electrical healing craze.

Mary Shelley used this belief in electricity to her advantage in 1817, giving birth to Frankenstein.

Electrotherapies were common in the 19th century. All sorts of electric devices – electric baths, electric belts, electric vests, electric soap, even electric hair brushes – could be purchased along with wild claims to health improvement.
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Electric belts were particularly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ads featured all manner of testimonials from satisfied customers. You didn’t even have to seek a specialist to get one –  they could be purchased from the Sears catalog. The Reinhardt brothers of Milwaukee were big proponents of electrical healing, selling their devices as cures for every kind of sexual dysfunction imaginable.

 

 

 

 

 

photo (15)I spotted these electrical belts in the collections at House on the Rock.

Of course, electrical therapy still exists to this day. Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation, or TENS, for instance, uses a low-voltage electrical current for pain relief, not unlike the torpedo fish of Roman times. Electricity may not be a cure-all but it’s definitely still with us.

An Illustrated History of Alternative Medicine in Early America

Sickness was a major part of early American life. Many people suffered from poor health their whole lives.

But scientifically valid medical knowledge was limited. The world in 1820 was not a much more comfortable place to fall ill than it had been two hundred years earlier. No one knew about germs or the significance of human contact or insects in spreading disease.

Medical theory of the time held that sickness resulted from a body out of balance. It was an idea that went back hundreds of years to Roman physician Galen in the 2nd century. To restore balance, mainstream doctors bled, blistered, and sweated patients to large and often painful degrees. They administered large doses of drugs like calomel, a form of mercury, to purge patients. Doctors chose treatments that caused quick and drastic changes in a patient’s condition, which could be interpreted as progress. Though well-intentioned, these mainstream treatments also caused as much, if not more, pain than the sickness itself. As a result, doctors could rarely offer sick Americans a medical means of getting better.

But as industrialization, urbanization, and new technologies remade everything from where people worked to how they lived and got around in the 19th century, many Americans began to question why medical care didn’t seem to be improving, too. Anyone who could offer a remedy that seemed effective, didn’t hurt as much as bleeding, cost less than a trip to a doctor, and even allowed you to treat yourself was bound to be popular. (Even a cursory study of the past reveals that Americans have been staunchly independent and looking for deals for centuries.)

And so, phrenologists read character on the topography of people’s skulls, hydropaths attempted to wash out all disease with cold water, and mesmerists transmitted an invisible fluid known as animal magnetism. And millions of Americans became devotees.

But why would anyone believe these things could work?

Burns Archive

Burns Archive

Read the rest on The Beacon Broadside.