The Perilous Danger of Microbes in the Scalp

June 13, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

The advertisement passed itself off as a legitimate news story.

The advertisement passed itself off as a legitimate news story.

Patent medicine makers sold their wares in Ypsilanti, as elsewhere, using fraudulent sales techniques. In the late 19th and early 20th century, no regulatory agency existed to analyze makers’ “medicines” or question their florid advertisements. One such ad for Rexall’s “93” hair tonic, on sale at the Rogers-Weinmann-Matthews drugstores at 118 Congress Street, 29 Huron, and 509-511 Cross Street, appeared in the January 29, 1909 Ypsilanti Daily Press. Written by Rexall, the ad was presented, as was common at the time, as a “straight” news story. The ad used several classic patent medicine advertising gambits.

One was to capitalize on current health issues or news. Under the headline “Microbes in the Scalp,” the article said, “Professor Unna of Hamburg, Germany, and Dr. Sabourand of Paris, France, share the honor of having discovered the hair microbe.” At the time, an interest in microbes, a term coined in 1897 by French surgeon Charles Sedillot to denote any life form too small to be seen without magnification, had seized the popular imagination. Pasteur and other scientists had made recent discoveries of microbial causes for feared, heretofore poorly-understood diseases such as rabies, malaria, and syphilis. The notion of new, invisible organisms that were ubiquitous and unpredictably lethal mesmerized the public. As a result, microbes appeared in many popular novels, poems, and plays. Mark Twain wrote a 1905 satire “3,000 Years Among the Microbes,” and Hilaire Belloc included his poem “The Microbe” in a 1897 anthology. Writers used such metaphors as “the microbe of love” or “the microbes of boredom.” There was even a drinking song about microbes, and poems such as W. C. Cooper’s 1895 verse “The Scheming Microbe.”

A microbe sat on a maiden’s lip, right an its kissiest part,
And murmered, “I’ll work that young man off in the highest style of art;
I’ll send a raging colony careering through his veins,
And they shall soak his system with a choice lot of ptomaines.

O, I’m of the choleric sort and the epidemic brand,
And you may bet the victim knows whenever I’m on hand;
For I raise a rumpus in his guts, like a slowly bursting bomb,
Which only ends, as a general thing, when he reaches kingdom come.”

Now, him that the grizzly microbe had in its measly, pizen mind
Was a niceish, youthish laddie of the hottest blooded kind;
Who loved the sweetish, youngish girl with an incandescent vim,
Which only found an offset in the way that she loved him.

Well, on the next sweet Sunday night, this niceish, youngish man
Was seated on the same chair with his darling Mary Ann;
And he hugged until he nearly busted her precious diaphragm,
And kised her sixteen hundred times with the zest of a battering ram.

The microbe had been swapped at least one thousand times, and when
The young man left the ornery beast was still with Mary Ann;
When her beau was gone, she finished up by kissing “Puggy Wee,”
And the next day that devoted pup most died of diarrhee.

Another advertising technique was to invoke “foreign experts,” whose citation combined Old World gravitas and (in those days) difficult-to-check credentials. It is likely that Professor Unna and Dr. Sabourand existed only in a copywriter’s imagination.

A common ad feature was “junk science.” The Press article said that baldness “is not caused through a few weeks’ work of these hair microbes, but is the result of conditions brought about by their presence. Baldness may not occur until years after the microbes begin work, but it is certain to come sooner or later. The microbes cut off the blood supply. They feed on the fatty matter about the root of the hair, through which the blood is absorbed. Finally the fatty matter is wholly consumed, the food supply of the hair is gone and it starves and finally dies.”

An additional gambit, seen in the Rexall ad, was the iron-clad guarantee. “If it does not grow hair on your bald head, stop your hair from falling out; cure you of dandruff; make your hair thick, silky, luxuriant; if it does not give you complete satisfaction in every particular, return the empty bottle to us, and we shall return every penny you paid for it, without question or formality.” Many nostrum ads similarly offered monetary “rewards” if a disease sufferer could be found who couldn’t be cured by the potion. But since the function of nostrums was to make money, not to cure, there was usually a caveat.

“Of course, you understand that when we say that Rexall “93” Hair Tonic will grow hair on bald heads, we do not refer to cases where the roots are entirely dead, the pores of the scalp closed, and the head has the shiny appearance of a billiard ball.” If a patron said “93” didn’t work, the makers could explain the failure as due to the maladies of “closed pores” or “dead roots.” “In cases like this, there is no hope. In all other cases of baldness Rexall “93” Hair Tonic will positively grow hair, or cost the user nothing. . . Two sizes, 50 cents and $1” [the equivalent of $12 and $24 today].

The proprietors of the Ypsi drugstore and their customers didn’t know that “93” was a useless concoction of boric acid and wood alcohol. But thanks to fraudulent advertising techniques like those in the 1909 ad, such potions were popular and profitable. From its inception the Rogers-Weinmann-Matthews store was an official Rexall franchise, one of the 2,218 licensed distributors of Rexall products in 1909, a number that would rise to 5,877 by 1915. The chain had been founded by Detroit-born patent medicine entrepreneur Louis K. Liggett. A fraction of Liggett’s eventual wealth came from Ypsilanti purchases of items like “93”.

Empty bottles of Rexall’s “93” Hair Tonic likely litter filled-in and forgotten privy pits around Ypsilanti, vanished testimony to an unregulated era when enterprising nostrum-makers hoodwinked Ypsilantians.

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales of the Ypsilanti Archives.” You can reach her at ypsidixit@gmail.com.

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