The phrenology movement, which was popular in the 1800s, claimed that a person’s personality and intelligence could be determined by the shape of his or her head. It was believed that 27 different organs were located in different parts of the brain and that each influenced a specific trait, from artistic talent to sexual desire. In the 19th century, people paid money to get their heads felt by a phrenologist to learn more about their natural strengths and weaknesses. For example, if you had a bump on a certain part of your skull—it would mean you have a greater capacity for “the sense of satire.”

Snake oil

Although the term “snake oil salesman” today refers to a person who knowingly sells frauds, the use of snake oil has real medicinal value. It is extracted from Chinese water snakes and contains omega-3 acids, which reduce inflammation and treat arthritis and bursitis. Workers would rub it on their joints after a long day of work on the Transcontinental Railroad. Clark Stanley, known as “The Rattlesnake King,” claimed to have learned about the medicinal benefits of snake oil from a Hopi medicine man. At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, he put on an act in which he grabbed a rattlesnake from a bag, cut it open and squeezed its body. However, his products were a fraud, as they contained no actual snake oil. The snake oil sellers of the American West didn’t care; they just wanted to make a quick buck. This gave the actual herbal remedy, which did have healing benefits, a bad reputation.


In 1884, an Austrian ophthalmologist named Carl Koller discovered that a few drops of cocaine solution put on a patient’s cornea acted as a topical anesthetic. This made the eye immobile and de-sensitized to pain, causing less bleeding at the site of incision. News of this discovery soon spread, and surgeons began using cocaine in both eye and sinus surgeries. As an over-the-counter remedy for toothaches, depression, sinusitis, lethargy and impotence, cocaine was soon being sold as a tonic and lozenge. Popular home remedies like Allen’s Cocaine Tablets were sold for $0.50 a box and offered relief for everything from hay fever to sleeplessness. In reality, the side effects of cocaine actually caused many of the ailments it claimed to cure—causing lack of sleep, eating problems, depression and even hallucinations. You didn’t even need a doctor’s prescription to purchase it. Some states sold it at bars, and it was famously one of the key ingredients in the original Coca-Cola recipe. By 1902, there were an estimated 200,000 cocaine addicts in the U.S., with many more worldwide. In 1914, Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Act outlawing the production, importation, and distribution of cocaine.


Dr. Walter Freeman thought he’d found a way to relieve the pain and distress of the mentally ill. However, his procedure became one of history’s most horrific medical treatments. Early versions of Freeman’s “cure” involved drilling holes in the top of his patients’ skulls, and later evolved into hammering an ice pick-like instrument through their eye sockets, to sever the connections between the frontal lobes and the thalamus, which he believed to be the part of the brain that dealt with human emotion. Freeman and James Watts performed their first lobotomy on a live patient in 1936. The woman suffered from agitated depression and sleeplessness. They deemed the surgery a success, but subsequent surgeries were not. Patients were often left in a vegetative state, experienced relapses, and regressed physically and emotionally. As many as 15 percent died. Freeman traveled to 23 states to demonstrate his miracle cure, which he performed on around 3,439 patients. And although there was no concrete success rate—or any real evidence of success at all—hospitals willingly let him continue performing the risky surgery. After the death of one of his original patients, Freeman finally stopped performing lobotomies.


In the 1800s, tapeworms became a popular weight-loss tool. The theory was that you could eat as much as you wanted and then wash it down with tapeworm eggs, which would eat away all the food. In reality, a tapeworm infection can lead to brain inflammation, seizures, and a 30-foot-long tapeworm that lives for decades growing inside one’s body. Perhaps it was for the best that most mail-order eggs were dead on arrival (or just never showed up at all).

Electric hairbrushes

The 1880s brought us the magnetic promise of self-improvement in the form of Dr. George A. Scott’s electric hairbrush. Although it was only slightly magnetized, many people bought it as a cure for just about every illness known to man. Scott wisely suggested that owners of the electric brush should not lend it to others, because this would diminish its power. If you complained that your electric brush didn’t work, you were likely told to look internally for the reason your electric brush had lost its power. Additionally, the “one-person, one-brush” rule naturally meant that everyone in the household had to have his or her own brush. The doctor’s instructions for his brushes advised: “People of sedentary habits and weakened nerve powers will find it a valuable companion.” Perhaps he hoped that his preferred clientele would be too lazy and depressed to demand refunds. In any case, the electric brush fell out of popularity sometime around 1890.

Asthma cigarettes

It may sound crazy, but smoking has been used to treat asthma for thousands of years. In the ancient Indian medical system called Ayurveda, doctors would smoke a plant containing atropine with patients suffering from throat and chest ailments. In the early 19th century, a new type of cigarette was invented: the ‘asthmatic cigarette’. These cigarettes had very little in common with ordinary cigarettes, which at the time were filled with tobacco leaves. Instead, asthmatic cigarettes were filled with herbs and narcotics that had a variety of effects on the smoker – including nausea, hallucinations and rapid heartbeat. Potter’s Asthma Cigarettes, Himrod’s Cure for Asthma and Dr. Kellogg’s Asthma Remedy were all popular brands of cigarettes in the late 19th century. It wasn’t until the 21st century that the dangers of smoking became clearer, and doctors stopped slapping their names on tobacco and asthmatic cigarettes.

Toilet masks

Madame Rowley’s Face Mask (or “Face Glove”) may look a little strange, but it was believed to be worth putting on your face. Created in 1875, the toilet mask was the terrifying predecessor of today’s face masks. Except that, instead of leaving it on for 15 minutes, women were meant to sleep all night in the rubber mask to sweat out their impurities. They were also told to fill the mask with bleach and other harmful chemicals to “treat” problem skin.

Electric flesh brush

In the 1880s, Dr. Scott marketed this electric-powered back massager with the motto “The Germ of All Life Is Electricity”. The “active” ingredient was a magnet, which allegedly cured “rheumatism, sciatica, gout, nervous debility, lumbago, neuralgia, toothache, malarial lameness” and “those ‘back aches’ peculiar to ladies.” Whether you think Dr. Scott’s magnet cure sounds ridiculous or not, it is interesting to note that magnet quackery is still around today, with its practitioners making equally outrageous claims.

Electromagnetic coils

In the 1860s, an electromagnetic coil was marketed as a cure-all for all kinds of ailments, from headaches and joint pain to gout and heart disease. Not only did it supposedly improve your health, but it made you feel younger and even look more attractive, according to ads for the device. The devices had many names, including the I-ON-A-CO, but they all worked on basically the same principle: Iron in your body assists the transfer of oxygen between cells and electricity supercharges iron, providing more oxygen to cells. While electrical currents are still used today (though at higher power and lower expectations) to ease muscle aches and pains, less powerful devices were once touted as cures for cancer and gout. People who used electromagnetic belts were often helped because they believed in the placebo effect. They thought that the devices would make them feel more energetic and youthful, so they often felt that way after using them. However, unlike other items, these belts were harmless.