The Philadelphia Museum of Art has recently opened Health for Sale: Posters From the William H. Helfand Collection, featuring frankly amusing patent medicine advertisements from bygone eras.
From Abigail Zuger’s excellent review in The New York Times:
Any immersion in medical history is likely to produce a stereotyped set of reflections on the remarkably short lifespan of most good medical advice and the remarkably enduring nature of the motivations behind it. Altruism and the hard sell have always been intertwined. In fact, William H. Helfand, a retired Merck executive and collector of medical memorabilia whose many donations to the museum include the 50-odd items in the show, goes on record in the catalog ruefully acknowledging patent medicine salesmen as his “figurative ancestors.”
The bold images on display here prompt one more reflection. As our technical understanding of health becomes ever more pixilated in dull shades of gray, muted by risk and benefit and by statistical slicing and dicing, the giant assertions splashed over these gallery walls are more appealing than ever.
Just tell me what to do, they say. Give me something that will work. No doctor today can do either one, not without a lot of disclaimers, but that doesn’t mean anyone has stopped asking.
If you are one of those people that loves graphics or old posters, then you really must check out this slideshow or better yet, see the exhibition!