History in Motion

Under the Loupe: Turn of the Century Medical Advertisements

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Thursday, February 5, 2015

This week, we'll take a close look at one of the stranger details found in a photograph from our glass plate collection. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, "patent" medicines were "all the rage," at least in the advertising world, and postings for all sorts of wild panaceas cropped up throughout San Francisco. As you'd expect, these ads touted the amazing benefits of whatever concoction they were trying to peddle, making various claims in an attempt to win the dollars of passers-by.

A simple yet beautiful street scene on Howard and Lafayette streets captures one such advertisement amidst the cobblestones, gas lamps and cigarette ads.

The Rose Rooms and Lafayette Bar at Howard and Lafayette Streets | March 8, 1913 | U03903
The Rose Rooms and Lafayette Bar at Howard and Lafayette Streets | March 8, 1913 | U03903

Closer inspection reveals the billboard, which is frankly quite difficult to process for modern eyes. Although this sign promises a home remedy for pain, it looks like the stuff of nightmares.

Detail of U03903 | March 8, 1913 | Hamlin's Wizard Oil

I can't imagine an advertisement that would drive a person away from the product it sells more quickly than this one would. Too many terrifying elements collide in one space on this paste-up: an evil-looking humanoid elephant (perhaps "Dr. Wizard"?), who is bandaging the arm of a small child, surrounded by dubious phrases and peering at the child through glazed-over, telescopic spectacles.

Apparently Hamlin's Wizard Oil had quite a decent run, though, having first been invented by magician John Austen Hamlin in either 1861 (as reported on Wikipedia) or 1858 (as the advertisement asserts).

I will say that while modern advertising is in certain ways no less terrifying, at least today's billboards generally wouldn't make children run screaming in terror at the remedy being advertised for use on them!

On a different note, the building featured here at mid-frame, right still stands at the corner of Lafayette and Howard streets. The Rose Rooms Apartments and Lafayette Bar (pictured here) replaced with a different hotel and a restaurant.

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