Posted on 19 February 2020
The desire to extend our youth and longevity is nothing new. With the advent of modern science and medicine, the potential of slowing or even reversing the ageing process moved from an impossibility to a reality. Here are four ways in which people were attempting to preserve their youthfulness 100 years ago.
The discovery of electricity transformed lives, and many had imaginative ideas about its potential applications. One such man was Cornelius B Harness of the Pall Mall Medical Association and the Medical Battery Company. Towards the end of the 19th century, he popularised the electropathic belt, a device that produced mild electric currents when placed next to the skin. This current could supposedly fix ”disruptions in and organ’s natural supply of electricity” and thus cure a variety of ailments.
Harness made a fortune from his endeavour, but his business fell apart by 1893, after a series of widely publicised legal claims. It seemed many customers were unsatisfied, and had been served by salesmen falsely claiming to have medical expertise. Eminent physicist Lord Kelvin even weighed in to point out that the current generated by the belt was next to non-existent.
If the electropathic belt was not working for you, perhaps some electric shock therapy would suit your needs. Machines such as the one pictured above came with a variety of implements for delivering electricity to different parts of the body, which was claimed to help restore and maintain a youthful appearance.
Cosmetic electrotherapy still exists today. For a (usually hefty) price, one can recieve facial electrotherapy, though there is no data to support that the treatment has any cosmetic benefits.
Aimed more at maintaining a woman’s youthful appearance than preserving her youth itself, the 20th century was a golden age for facial skin care products. Much as today, facial creams claimed to smooth wrinkles and preserve smooth skin. Regardless of their effectiveness, it is hard to argue they weren’t an improvement over 19th century skin care:
Nibbling on wafers of the highly toxic metal arsenic would ”transform the most sallow skin into radiant health”, while mercury was recommended for sparse eyebrows and eyelashes.
At the start of the 20th century, the idea that surgery could restore youthfulness became increasingly popular among physicians – specifically, the transplantation of testicular material into older men. Perhaps the most famous implementation of this technique was by Serge Voronoff, who charged up to £1000 for operations in which he transplanted monkey glands into elderly men, convinced that the process had a rejuvenating effect.
Given what we understand about rejection of foreign tissue by the immune system, it is unlikely this technique would have had any beneficial effects beyond those of a placebo.
Electric age: Cornelius B Harness and his electropathic belt: https://wellcomecollection.wordpress.com/2017/05/31/electric-age-cornelius-b-harness-and-his-electropathic-belt/
The Poisonous Beauty Advice Columns of Victorian England: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-poisonous-beauty-advice-columns-of-victorian-england
Anti-Aging Medicine: The History: Life Extension and History: The Continual Search for the Fountain of Youth: https://doi.org/10.1093/gerona/59.6.B515
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