Weight-loss reme­dies: obe­sity soap, lax­a­tive wa­ter and fat mas­sage

‘Gen­tle knead­ing’ with ro­tat­ing rub­ber cups was one of his­tory’s ri­vals for di­et­ing

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - From | From The Archives - Louise Ní Chríodáin

Con­flict­ing claims for dif­fer­ent weight-loss regimes are no mod­ern phe­nom­e­non. An­other foray into the archives shows that diet fads and the search for quick-fix reme­dies have been around as long as The Ir­ish Times.

It was 1863 when Wil­liam Bant­ing, an English fu­neral di­rec­tor, first pub­li­cised the weight-re­duc­tion method that had worked for him, a diet high in pro­teins and low in fats and car­bo­hy­drates. In an 1864 let­ter to the edi­tor, Bant­ing ar­gued that “sugar and sac­cha­rine mat­ters are the chief cause of obe­sity”.

The pop­u­lar­ity of his ap­proach was far-reach­ing. A snip­pet that same year in­forms us: “Mr Bant­ing has been suc­cess­ful with the Princess Mary of Cam­bridge . . . through ab­stain­ing from bread, pota­toes, and milk, her Royal High­ness is much slim­mer.”

How­ever, oth­ers de­clared Bant­ing’s diet “hum­bug”. Ad­dress­ing the Bri­tish As­so­ci­a­tion, a Dr Davy dis­missed the obe­sity-cor­rect­ing claims of the meat-based regime. One ar­gu­ment he for­warded was that the English had been par­tic­u­larly large con­sumers of meat, and Car­rib can­ni­bals could “dis­tin­guish an English­man, and pre­ferred him at their feasts, he be­ing richer and more juicy”!

While Bant­ing taught “fat makes fat”, Ger­many’s Prof Eb­stein trea­tised in 1883 that fat is pro­duced “merely by overeat­ing and drink­ing”. His rec­om­mended daily menu shunned sugar, pota­toes and turnips, but ad­vised “plenty of but­ter”, soup (“fre­quently and with bone-mar­row”), fat gravy and meat, a small quan­tity of veg­eta­bles and fruit, and “two or three glasses of light wine”.

Mas­sage be­came an­other pop­u­lar ap­proach to weight re­duc­tion. The year 1877 brought news from Paris of ac­tress Ce­line Mon­ta­laud’s “in­creas­ing em­bon­point” . A Dr Ger­ard “un­der­took, by a course of knead­ing and pom­mel­ing” to re­duce “her ex­u­ber­ant plump­ness”. How­ever, 240 treat­ments later Mon­ta­laud ob­jected to a bill of 2,400 francs, claim­ing her obe­sity had in­creased. The doc­tor “as­serted that the fault lay with Made­moi­selle, in as much as she re­fused to fol­low his pre­scrip­tions, to eat spar­ingly, to rise be­fore noon, and above all, to es­chew sup­pers”.

‘Stout­ness’ is­sues

Read­ers con­stantly sought ad­vice from the pa­per’s columnists for their “stout­ness”. In 1895 “Gipsy Count­ess” was told: “Avoid foods con­tain­ing starch and sugar, and do not drink much with your meals. A glass of hot wa­ter be­fore go­ing to bed will be found ben­e­fi­cial . . .”

As he did reg­u­larly, our med­i­cal cor­re­spon­dent also rec­om­mended Dr Nathaniel Yorke-Davies’s book, Foods for the Fat. Yorke-Davies’s most fa­mous client was Amer­i­can pres­i­dent Wil­liam Taft, and his “re­duc­ing diet” barred sugar and bread, and ini­tially re­moved all fats, milk, cheese, cream and eggs. Lau­rent Per­rier was just one com­pany which used the doc­tor’s name in pro­mo­tions, claim­ing he found their “Sans Su­cre Cham­pagne in­valu­able in treat­ing obe­sity by diet”.

From about 1912 our health cor­re­spon­dent ad­vised reg­u­larly on “How to Be­come Thin­ner”, telling read­ers to ex­er­cise and avoid all sweet dishes, pota­toes and but­ter, café au lait or coca.

“A glass­ful of hot wa­ter with half a le­mon squeezed into it” was to be sipped half an hour af­ter ev­ery meal, and the time al­lowed for sleep was to be short­ened, “for they who lie in bed in the morn­ing will never be­come thin”.

That same year “The Con­ver­sa­tions with a Sphinx” col­umn ad­vised that ex­er­cise was “the only means by which per­ma­nent re­lief from obe­sity can be ob­tained”. Walk­ing, wood-chop­ping, Swedish gym­nas­tics, bi­cy­cle rid­ing, and “care­fully-grad­u­ated moun­tain climb­ing” were all rec­om­mended, with the ad­di­tional ad­vice that, “ex­er­cise be­fore break­fast is more ef­fec­tive that at any other time of the day”.

How­ever, 40 years later, a health cor­re­spon­dent wrote: “Ex­er­cise does not make you lose weight. It helps your ap­petite and so makes you put it on.”

In 1914 an “Anx­ious Mother” was told to “get the boy into a drill class”, and to swing out of the cross­bar to work off “su­per­flu­ous fat”. An­other reader was rec­om­mended Hun­yadi Janos – a widely ad­ver­tised “ape­ri­ent” or lax­a­tive wa­ter.

‘Cor­pu­lence cure’ Ad­ver­tise­ments tar­get­ing the over­weight were com­mon from the 1870s when “Al­lans Anti Fat” – an ex­tract of sea­weed – reg­u­larly ap­pealed to the over­weight reader. Kr­uschen Salts, mean­while, pur­ported to “melt away” “dis­fig­ur­ing” fat.

From the 1890s, FC Rus­sell’s ad­ver­to­ri­als pro­moted his book and veg­etable tonic. His “ad­vice” in­cluded “eat as much as you like”, claim­ing his pre­scrip­tion could re­sult in weight loss of up to 12lb a week! It ap­par­ently con­tained mainly cit­ric acid – le­mon juice – the chief ingredient in an­other pop­u­lar “cor­pu­lence cure”, “An­tipon”.

The new cen­tury brought an in­creased trend for fe­male thin­ness, and the wide­spread use of un­pre­scribed thy­roid tablets as a weight-loss aid. There were warn­ings from the Bri­tish Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion in 1927 but in 1932 a sur­geon was still de­cry­ing their po­ten­tial harm, ap­peal­ing to the north­ern govern­ment to: “Save Ul­ster girls from ‘slim­ming’.”

The con­stant quest for a quick-fix so­lu­tion – avoid­ing both ex­er­tion or de­pri­va­tion – also brought “Obe­sity Soap”, used by “Madame Cordeax” on Molesworth Street in 1899. “Elec­tric Light Baths” for weight-loss were fash­ion­able in 1906, and

Laure nt Per­rier was just one com­pany which used the doc­tor’s name in pro­mo­tions, claim­ing he found their ‘Sans Su­cre Cham­pagne in­valu­able in treat­ing obe­sity by diet’

Turk­ish baths in the 1930s. And in the 1920s the “Punkt Roller” tar­geted those “trou­bled with un­wanted fat”. Two hours of ex­er­cise could be re­placed by “10 min­utes” with the “gen­tle knead­ing” of its ro­tat­ing rub­ber cups. “No need for di­et­ing.”

New diet fads were also her­alded. An ar­ti­cle in 1879 refers to the “com­mon prac­tice of young peo­ple tak­ing vine­gar to pre­vent obe­sity”. In 1908 Prof F Moritz of Stras­bourg pi­o­neered his “Milk Diet” – just milk! And ac­cord­ing to Dr Leonard Wil­liams in 1919 only raw food would re­move obe­sity-caus­ing tox­ins from the body.

The fash­ion for a “non-sugar” diet in 1926 was even blamed for a world sugar glut. One sugar re­finer com­mented: “We no­ticed a dif­fer­ence in this trade soon af­ter this ‘get thin quick’ craze be­gan, but we find con­so­la­tion in the be­lief that it can­not last long.

“No woman – not even a stout one – can re­sist the lure of cho­co­late in­def­i­nitely.”

An Ir­ish Times ad on De­cem­ber 11th, 1928, for the “Punkt Roller” tar­get­ing those “trou­bled with un­wanted fat”. Right: An ad on March 27th, 1943, for Mar­mola Anti-fat Tablets

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