Well, I just found out what I’m reading for the next month. Villanova has an online archive of the Illustrated Police News, a proto-men’s magazine of the Victorian and early Edwardian era. It’s tough to make out, since the pulp copies were never meant to hang on as long as they did, but it’s worth the read.
Here’s an assortment of ads from a March 1895 issue.
The first ad is the first disguised ad for birth control. What the buyer might receive here — a pessary, a diaphragm, an unhelpful pamphlet — depended entirely on how strongly local Comstock laws were enforced.
The second ad, for Nox-Em-All, struck me as an ad for smut, since it promised “racy samples.” However, looking into it, I see that Nox-Em-All is a kind of card trick. Card tricks can be very old, and the word “racy” did once have a broader sense of “vivid and exciting.” Stranger still, Noxemall (sic) was once a brand of animal feed out of Detroit. And a line of shoes. It’s hard to say. Nonetheless, my guess is still smut.
The next two ads are for quack medicines for “lost power”—which is to say, boners. Offers to “enlarge shrunken or undeveloped parts” were popular then as now. The treatments, whatever they were, could have done nothing for a painful varicocele.
The next ad is, depending on the customer’s timing, either for birth control or for abortion. A pre-20th century ad for a “menstrual regulator” or an “emmenagogue” generally means just that—induction of miscarriage. To “restore their courses,” women resorted to tansy and pennyroyal tinctures; the ad tips its hand by mentioning that. They might work, or they might not, but they would certainly bring on violent illness, and possibly death. How much better Carter’s Relief was, I cannot say.
The idea of a cure for alcoholism that could be secretly slipped into food is heartbreaking. The name of Dr. Haines’ Golden Specific was no doubt meant to play on the famous gold cure for alcoholism, taken by the well-off at sanitariums. This substance, however, was neither gold nor specific. It could be slipped into food or drink without drawing notice because it did nothing.