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Vintage newspaper ads promise mysterious 'miracle cures'

The Detroit Record used to advertise hair food. Yes, you read that right. Ayer's Hair Vigor, food for the hair that cured dandruff, falling hair and restored all of the hair's rich color of early

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An advertisement for Peruna Tablets featured in the Sept. 26, 1916 issue of the Detroit Record, one of the precursors to the Detroit Lakes Tribune.
Detroit Lakes Tribune Archives
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DETROIT LAKES, Minn. — It wasn't until the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 that, for the first time, drugs needed to be proven safe and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration before the products could be marketed.

Before then, products could be advertised to miraculously cure a range of illnesses and conditions. Some of these products were advertised in local community newspapers, like the Detroit Record, a precursor to the Detroit Lakes Tribune.

Ronica Wahl, a Sanford Health family nurse practitioner with 15 years of experience, said modern medicine has come a long way in terms of antibiotics, surgeries and other treatment options, which makes these miracle cures from the past kind of funny.

"Our medical knowledge is changing, it's evolving, we're updating guidelines," Wahl said. "We've started working off of evidence-based medicine, so going off of studies and not just doing things because it anecdotally works. It's because we know, it's been studied, it's been tested and that's the best way to go."

Here are some classic "miracle cure" ads, along with the modern day, scientific truth.

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Ayer's Hair Vigor

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An advertisement for Ayer's Hair Vigor featured in the Jan. 20, 1905 issue of the Detroit Record, one of the precursors to the Detroit Lakes Tribune.
Detroit Lakes Tribune Archives

As advertised in the Jan. 20, 1905, Detroit Record, Ayer's Hair Vigor "checks falling hair, makes hair grow, completely cures dandruff and always restores color to gray hair."

In the advertisement's testimonial from Rebecca Allen, of Elizabeth, N.J., she said: "My hair was always falling out badly and I was afraid I would lose it all. Then, I tried Ayer's Hair Vigor. It quickly stopped the falling and made my hair all I could wish it to be."

Wahl said current treatment options for thinning hair aren't as simple as Ayer's would have people believe. Surgical implants, Rogaine and the generic Minoxidil are the best treatment options today. However, Rogaine and Minoxidil are recommended for men only, since some of the components react to the high level of estrogen in women and can cause serious side effects.

"Some females, once you get to a certain age, if they are not within child bearing age, they are able to take it," she said.

Peruna Tablets

Peruna Tablets have "helped thousands" and provide a "foe to catarrh," according to an ad in the Sept. 26, 1916, Detroit Record. Chronic catarrh is an excessive build up of mucus in the nose or throat.

According to the ad: "(Peruna Tablets) gives vitality to the system, restores tone to the membranes and enables these to perform their functions. In many cases, its benefits begin at once."

Wahl said, currently, build-ups of phlegm can be caused from a variety of reasons.

"A lot of times phlegm is a symptom of viruses, allergic rhinitis, or like, allergies," Wahl said. "In that case, antihistamines, like Claritin, Zyrtec, Allegra, Benadryl at night, those things can actually reduce the amount of phlegm you have."

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Dr. Fenner's Kidney and Backache Cure

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An advertisement for Dr. Fenner's Kidney and Backache Cure featured in the Dec. 16, 1904 issue of the Detroit Record, one of the precursors to the Detroit Lakes Tribune.
Detroit Lakes Tribune Archives

This miracle cure boasted that it was good enough to treat multiple bodily systems at once.

According to a testimonial in the Detroit Record advertisement (Dec. 16, 1904): "Now, the first bottle didn't stop those wearing backaches, but it did afford me great relief. The second bottle, however, did eventually put a stop to those racking backaches. Occasionally, they returned when strenuous business affairs exhausted the physical forces, but a dose, or two, of Dr. Fenner's Cure gave instant relief."

Wahl said if a person is experiencing muscular or skeletal back pain and then pain from a kidney stone, there is no miracle cure.

She also said people seeking medical advice for a kidney disorder should consult a urologist; for a skeletal disorder, they should consult a neurologist; and for a blood disorder, they should consult a hematologist.

Stoligal, Detroit Record, April 28, 1922

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An advertisement for Stoligal featured in the April 28, 1922 issue of the Detroit Record, one of the precursors to the Detroit Lakes Tribune.
Detroit Lakes Tribune Archives

Stoligal claimed to cure stomach disorders, ulcers, gall-stone trouble and chronic appendicitis.

According to the advertisement in the April 28, 1922, Record: "Stoligal will put pep in your step. It will make you eat well, sleep well, ambitious and regular ... Remember, if after reading this message you do not take Stoligal, then you will have yourself to blame when you are told there is no hope for you."

Digestive health is a large concern for many practitioners today, Wahl said.

"The gall bladder is actually pretty important because that's where a lot of our digestive enzymes are stored," she said. "They kinda sit there and wait to be excreted through that common bile duct when we eat a meal, and that helps the stomach break down the food."

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Wahl noted that there isn't one pill that can treat all the different parts of the digestive system.

In terms of controlling indigestion, acid reflux, or ulcers, she said a doctor would probably prescribe a proton pump inhibitor or an H2 blocker to control the enzymes.

Hanford's Balsam of Myrrh

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An advertisement for Hanford's Balsam of Myrrh featured in the Sept. 20, 1912 issue of the Detroit Record, one of the precursors to the Detroit Lakes Tribune.
Detroit Lakes Tribune Archives

As advertised in the Sept. 20, 1912, Detroit Record, Hanford's can be used on cuts, bruises, burns, sprains, strains, lame back, old sores and open wounds.

Wahl said doctors still use topical numbing agents today. Many of them, like IcyHot, can be purchased over the counter at any drug store.

"They'll take your symptoms away for a little time, except for the bruising, I don't agree with the bruising," said Wahl, adding that an ice pack with some compression helps treat bruising, not a topical cream.

As far as cuts and burns, Wahl said, the same topical cream could be used, since the purpose is to prevent infection. Open wounds should be washed out immediately and an antibiotic ointment used on the wound right away.

"Keep it covered, and away from dirt, or friction," she said. "Depending on the size of the wound, you need to leave it open to air."

She also warned not to continue to use peroxide after the wound's initial cleaning because the chemical can eat away at the healthy tissue surrounding the wound.

Lead Multimedia Reporter for the Detroit Lakes Tribune and the Perham Focus.
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