In 2013, two doctors wrote a piece for TIME about our energy obsession (specifically, energy drinks and similar energy snacks), noting, “We have become obsessed with the concept of ‘energy’ and yet display a profound misunderstanding of what energy is.” But that’s not entirely accurate: We’ve been obsessed with — and misunderstood — energy for a long time. And we’ve always wanted a quick fix for it.
One hundred years ago, the buzzword was vitality (and occasionally its jaunty cousin, “pep”). And, as with our purported lack of energy today, lots of companies had ideas about what caused that lack of vitality — and, of course, they were happy to hock you products to fix it.
According to the Crosby Co., a company that thrived for a couple of decades in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the secret to vitality was in the brain. Specifically, if you felt like your brain was tired and enfeebled, the solution was easy: Eat the brain of an animal, pulverized into powder. In this case, an ox:
Did it work? Well, most legit supplement companies don’t claim that their products provide “relief of all weaknesses.” It also doesn’t help Crosby’s case to know that in multiple searches for “vitalized phosphites” around the late 1800s and early 1900s, the phrase primarily shows up in Crosby’s ads. Where’s the other place it occasionally shows up? In publications totally decimating the legitimacy of “vitalized phosphites.” An issue of The Medical News noted:
Crosby’s Brain and Nerve Food, which claims to be composed of vitalized phosphites from ox-brain and wheat-germ, consists almost exclusively of starch. There are no characteristic gluten cells, no nerve-fibre, no axis cylinder fibre, no ganglion, nor multipolar cell. The advertisement claims that the brain is that of the ox, but the label states that the brain is that of the fish…. There are 270 parts of so-called vitalized salts asserted to be in this food; that is, salts in connection with the organic substances named. If this be so, all the albuminoids in all the foods in the market are vitalized, also.
Ouch. But, as we all know, facts don’t matter much when you’re telling a lie that people want to believe. That Medical News article was published in 1882, and Crosby’s was still going strong in 1905, so it looks like powdered fish brains did fill one thing with vitality: Crosby’s bank account.
For more logical companies, vitality came through the stomach — because, it turns out, when humans eat food, our bodies turn it into energy. One of the companies to capitalize on this was Fleischmann’s Yeast, the same company that makes bread yeast today. In the 1920s, they marketed eating straight yeast as the number-one way to remain young and vital.
A 1923 Fleischmann’s ad in The Atlantic noted, “Many men and women who had been suffering from poor appetite have regained appetite and vigor. One of them wrote, ‘My vitality is back to normal. I have a ravenous appetite and every morning I get up full of ‘pep’ and ambition.’” The solution was simple: eat “2 to 3” Fleischmann’s yeast cakes every single day, sliced “like cheese or butter.”
As a vitality cure, this one isn’t crazy. You’ve probably heard your resident vegan yap about all of the health benefits of nutritional yeast, which is just a deactivated version of the same yeast strain used to bake bread and provide 1920s pep. Both are full of nutrients like riboflavin and folate, and relatively high in protein — although today’s nutritional yeast is usually fortified to be more of a powerhouse. Oh, and if you’re thinking, “But Dr. Oz said that yeast drains your energy,” there’s two things you should know: that’s a different strain of yeast, and you may want a second opinion.
The Erie Medical Company, meanwhile, had another approach to vitality, one that they hocked with not-so-subtle ads like this:
The ad goes on to state that the Erie Medical Company has “learned nature’s secrets, nature’s remedies, and work in full harmony and accord with nature.”
If it’s not obvious, they were manufacturing penis pumps.
Dr. Edward C. Atwater did humanity a great service by collecting books and ephemera related to the medical industry, and University of Rochester Press did a further service by publishing “An Annotated Catalog of the Edward C. Atwater Collection of Popular Medicine and Health Reform,” which includes scores of information about the Erie Medical Co. Thus, instead of a great penis pump being lost to history, we know that the Erie Vacuum Appliance made it so that “Happiness, confidence, and cheerfulness… take the place of fear, dread, hopelessness and brooding” because “The length of a man’s life, and its condition of health are inseparably connected with the genital organs.” And while the company may be making an overstatement, it’s not totally wrong — sexual dysfunction can be demoralizing and emasculating — basically, yeah, it can suck vitality out of your life.
The Erie penis pump is a reminder that, while “energy” and “vitality” are gender-neutral terms, they’re frequently used as subtle synonyms for masculinity — because isn’t it manly to be energetic? To be able to bust through reps, take charge of the situation, provide for your family, decimate your rivals, and still have the fortitude to get down like a bull on Cialis? This isn’t just conjecture — a 2015 study found that men who believed in images of traditional masculinity are more likely to believe that energy drinks can have profound results. The study’s co-author, Ronald Levant, noted, “These young men believe that is the way men should be, want to be that, and believe that energy drinks will make them be that way.”
But all of these energy “cures” conveniently ignore something: that sometimes, when we lack vitality, there’s nothing to fix. We’re imperfect animals that need rest in order to survive; not success machines that can use a constant supply of energy drinks to do more work on our “side hustle” (a phrase that should be set on fire with other high-achievement buzzwords). And while you might believe that the manlier man is the guy who can keep himself up all night to get stuff done, I’m going to spend my time with the guy who gets a good night’s sleep. At the very least, he’s less likely to need a penis pump.
If you want to read more about old-timey vitality cures, check out my recent piece on historical cures for male nervousness — many of the cures in that, including goat gland surgery, did double-duty in reducing nervousness and increasing vitality. Well, when they didn’t kill you, that is.