Thursday, April 12, 2012

Isaac and the 200 Year Club

In 1870 Isaac Beckley Werner was a twenty-six year old druggist in the Illinois prairie town of Rossville. He took great pride in his business, recording word for word in his journal the praise of a drug salesman from Lafayette, Indiana, with the firm of Tinney & Moore Druggist: "Your name, I.B. Werner, I wrote many a time before this, quite familiar to me, although this is the first time we get to see each other," Moore had commented. "You keep the neatest Drug store I met in a good while. In traveling about the country selling goods one comes often into regular Holes--mean, dirty groceries and saloons. But, indeed you have everything well arranged and keep it in good order." Obviously, Isaac had some rudimentary knowledge of medical remedies and certainly respected the need for maintaining a clean establishment.

The times in which he lived, however, were inundated with all sorts of quack medicines. Isaac never mentions buying or using any patent medicines, nor does he regard the use of alcohol for medicinal purposes favorably. He did occasionally visit dentists, and tooth brushes were among the personal items sold at his estate sale. As for visits to a doctor, that was rare. Once, when he developed severe stiffness and swelling of the fingers of his left hand, he treated it with a poultice he made for himself from linseed oil, and by the time he finally went to town on business and at the close of his day visited a doctor, his hand was nearly healed. He did continue during the following days applying a poultice of linseed oil and the ointment the doctor had given him, and his hand slowly improved but remained stiff.

Overall, his health seemed good until his late 40s when he began to experience headaches, dizziness, and bilious spells. It was around this time that he sent off for membership in the Ralston 200 Year Club. The Ralstonism movement was the creation of Webster Edgerly, a graduate of the Boston University School of Law. Edgerly did practice law, but he also wrote many books, using the penname of Edmund Shaftesbury. He expressed little respect for doctors, suggesting that the common sense of most men and women exceeded the methods of doctors, whose cures often caused more harm to the patient than the ailment for which medical advice was sought. Several comments in Isaac's Journal reflect that he shared a similar negative opinion of invasive medical treatments of that era.

So, as Isaac's health began to fail, instead of consulting a doctor, he wrote for a membership in the 200 Year Club. Edgerly was a savvy marketer. Part 4 of his book emphasized that members were to accept the idea that "...the acquisition of perfect health is by far the most important thing in life," and having accepted that idea it was their duty to spread the Ralston doctrines through forming and attending local clubs--obviously bringing more customers for Edgerly's books.

While Edgerly included remedies for specific ailments in his book, his actual approach to good health was through the practice of preventive medicine, in short, prescribing a regime of healthful living to avoid sickness, of which exercise was an important part. Part 1 of the book set out "The Nine Great Laws of Nature," itemizing elements of healthful diet, exercise, and lifestyle. The objective, once these nine laws were understood and implemented, was to change the member's Nature. Edgerly explained that Man's 2nd Nature was to be controlled by the circumstances of his life, but the goal was to overcome this tendency by cultivating Man's 1st Nature, which would allow him to shape the circumstances himself.

The first step in accomplishing this process was to stop allowing circumstances which "disturb, annoy, embarrass or affect you." Instead of responding negatively, you should take life as it comes, without worry or irritation; present an open face through calmness, sweetness, and purity; and observe the Nine Great Laws of Nature. Using these techniques, those who practiced Edgerly's advice could change their Nature.

Edgerly proposed that irritability was the greatest disease breeder of all. He wrote: "Some people go through life one train late. The common successes keep just ahead of them. They may move with rapidity, but they do not start soon enough. Such persons curse themselves, their creator, and mankind." Many of Edgerly's ideas were almost comical, but others are accepted even today. For example, he said, "We do not drink water enough," and "...four or more light meals per day are better than two or three heavy meals." As for exercise, four of his nine great laws of nature dealt with staying active, specifically: "Gravity causes us to sit too much, to lie around in lazy positions, to half lounge when at home, and to avoid walking and standing. These lead to inactivity and ill health." Motion is necessary. "Too much sleep, and too much inactivity produce disease...Nature intends to make us active...Repose is decay...Ennui is a disease." "Energy is both refreshing and recuperative..." And, finally, "Speed, combined with energy...impells the blood throughout the body in even circulation, and scatters the blood that stagnates in the brain."

Unfortunately, while Isaac tried to implement Edgerly's ideas, especially with regard to improving his diet, he did not live to be 200 years old but only about a fourth of that. One of the things the Ralston Health Club advocated was including whole grains in the diet, and a recipe for cereal included in the book was very similar to a cereal being produced by the Purina Milling Company. They asked Edgerly to endorse their product, which he did, and that eventually led to the name, the Ralston Purina Company. Edgerly and his health Club are largely forgotten, but the name his cereal gave to Ralston Purina remains familiar.

What Edgerly was doing with his 200 Year Club was telling people how they could improve their lives for themselves. Self-help books are nothing new, although they seem to have exploded in today's market, expanding beyond the printed page onto electronic screens, the internet, health club membership, lectures, seminars, and DVDs. Enter "self-help" as a search topic on Amazon and you will get 254,913 results! However, you can also look backward and find self-help advice from classical antiquity. As a young man, Isaac sought self-improvement through acquiring a personal library, believing he could educate himself with the wisdom contained in those books. It was natural for him to turn to the advice contained in Edgerly's book for improving his failing health.

Turning to membership in the 200 Year Club may now seem foolish, but in comparison to the extravagant claims of the patent medicine ads, such as those found in the County Capital newspaper to which Isaac subscribed (from which all of the advertisements pictured in this post were taken), Edgerly's advice about diet, exercise, and positive thinking seems quite reasonable. What is always interesting is not the differences we find in history but the similarities, the common issues each generation faces and the similar ways we confront those problems. Isaac may not have had a treadmill nor a grocery store with aisles of food labeled "fat free" and "whole grain," but it is surprising how little his generation's goals for better health differ from our own.

Remember that you can click on an image to enlarge it, especially to read the text accompanying these advertisements from the 1890s.

1 comment:

The Blog Fodder said...

Very informative. Ralston Purina. Amazing. Ralston had the right idea and many of his points are still repeated in today's self help books. Love the quack medicine cure-alls. Were there any medicines that actually worked in those days or was everything mostly placebo effect?