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Battling with the Scale: A Look Back at Weight Loss Trends in the U.S.

Cover from How Phyllis Grew Thin ( Lynn, Mass. : Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Co, ca 1920)

Cover from How Phyllis Grew Thin ( Lynn, Mass. : Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Co, ca 1920)

As we enter this new year, many of us have made resolutions to spend more time with family, to volunteer, perhaps to stop smoking, and of course, to get fit and lose weight. The widespread desire to become healthier and shed those extra pounds is met with a plethora of weight loss products, programs, and gimmicks.

Weight loss is a popular topic, solidly proven by the number of dieting books in the Library of Congress collection. The term dieting first appeared in U.S. medical literature in the 1830s, but was mainly used in regard to foods and recipes for curing various conditions and ailments, not for weight reduction. Dieting as a means to weight loss gained popularity in the U.S. during the mid-19th century; however, it was predominately marketed to the male audience. Many suggest the trend for weight loss in the U.S. can be attributed to William Banting’s A Letter on Corpulence  (1863), which became a best seller with 12 editions being published up to 1900.

During the Victorian era, the ideal image of a woman was full-bodied and products for increasing, not reducing, weight were marketed to women (see Loring’s Fat-Ten-U food). As we entered the 20th century, conversations on weight reduction began to focus on women. Articles and advertising promoting weight loss advice began to permeate popular women’s periodicals of the day, such as Woman Beautiful Magazine, Ladies Home Journal, and Harper’s Bazar. Mary Williams writes in the May 1908 issue of Woman Beautiful:

American women are living in greater comfort than ever before, when the automobile has superseded walking and the after theater super has been added to the three bountiful meals a day, it is not strange that when two or three women gather together all sorts flesh reducers are usually the subject of conversation. (The Importance of the Youthful Line, p. 49)

Ewing Reducing Garment Ad from Woman Beautiful Magazine, Dec. 1908:  p.87

Ewing Reducing Garment Ad from Woman Beautiful Magazine, Dec. 1908: p.87

Back in 2011 the Library hosted a panel discussion on Weight Loss through the Ages with leading health and nutritional experts. For this program we created a guide to Diets and Dieting: A History of Weight Loss in America and the Health Effects of Obesity. Many dieting programs make an effort to use proper nutrition and sound scientific studies to back their weight loss practices. However, that eternal quest for the magic bullet of losing weight without the hard work created an industry of never-ending weight loss fads that still exists today. Early 20th century periodicals, of which the Library has an abundant supply, provide examples of these fads marketed to women, such as reducing (rubber) garments, bath salts, and herbal tablets that claim one can lose “superfluous fat” without dieting or exercising.

These vintage weight loss advertisements can be offensive, unbridled, degrading, and often times ridiculous. They are simply presented here to educate the history of weight loss trends.

 Reducing Rubber Garments

Perhaps the famous Fountain of Youth was not a fountain at all, but a sweat box, and the reducing garment makers have succeeded in making it out of rubber. (Williams, Importance of the Youthful Line, p. 50)

Specialized, and often medicated, rubber garments that were worn under clothes grew in popularity in the early 20th century.  Many of the advertisements suggest that one loses weight by perspiration (water loss), however, they also claim to “dissolve fat.” The reducing garment is still used today for weight loss, but is now referred to as the sauna suit and manufactured out of nylon or PVC.

Loring & Co. Reducing Tablets ad from Woman Beautiful, June 1909: pg. 87

Loring & Co. Reducing Tablets ad from Woman Beautiful, June 1909: pg. 87

Reducing Herbal Tablets

The idea of herbal remedies to lose weight is still popular today. The selling point of herbal pills is that the products are made with “no chemicals” and you do not need a prescription. However, do not be swayed to believe that herbs and roots are harmless. Some herbs can have serious side effects and can be dangerous to your health. It is always best to talk to your doctor if you are interested in taking herbal weight loss products.

Louisenbad Reduction Salt ad from Woman Beautiful Magazine, Dec. 1908: pg 5

Louisenbad Reduction Salt ad from Woman Beautiful Magazine, Dec. 1908: pg 5

Reducing Bath Salts

The claim that you don’t need to diet or exercise to lose weight, rather all you need to do is simply take a bath with these specialized salts might take the award for the easiest, and most relaxing way to weight loss. Even though there are healing properties in using bath salts (e.g. Epsom Salt) to help reduce ailments and inflammation, there is not any solid proof that soaking in a bath with mineral salts will shed fat. If you know of scientific studies that support the claims of specialized bath salts in weight loss, please send them my way, because I cannot find any.

Front Cover from Nina Wilcox Putnam's Tomorrow We Diet (1922)

Front Cover from Nina Wilcox Putnam’s Tomorrow We Diet (1922)

Advertisements can reveal the tone and tenor of the times. You can discover more vintage weight loss advertisements from the library’s extensive back issues of periodicals, as well as in newspapers (see Chronicling America– a digital collection of historical American newspapers).The Advertising Digital Collections at Duke University might also be of interest to historians or collectors of vintage advertisements- especially see the Medicine and Madison Ave. collection of nutrition and diet ads.

In addition, the Library has a worthy collection of dieting (weight loss) books from the late 19th century to today. These books are classified in a variety of ways- some of the earlier books are given the subject obesity (RC class), but you can also find the early discussions of weight loss in books cataloged with the subject beauty, personal or women-health and hygiene.  The more contemporary books on dieting will, more than likely, be cataloged under the subject heading weight loss or reducing diets (RA class).


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