Wilson’s Common Sense Ear Drums

George H. Wilson (1866-1949) of Louisville, Kentucky, received a patent (U.S. #476,853) for his “rimless [and] self-ventilating” artificial eardrum in 1892. Often referred as “wireless phones for the ears,” the device was made of rubber, designed to be simple in construction and “so shaped that it can be quickly and readily removed and replaced without pain, and when in position is invisible, not liable to irritate, and is a good sound conductor.” Wilson_LetterheadEarly advertisements for Wilson’s device, the “Common Sense Ear Drums,” emphasized its invisibility, both in public, and for the wearer themselves—the device was so resilience, soft, and painless, that even a user could forget they had them on. In other words, Wilson’s design ensured the prosthetic nature of the eardrums; they were so integrated with body that it became a part of it, and could be easily forgotten.

Advertisements for the Wilson Ear Drum Company additionally capitalized on the technical and scientific aspects of the device: adverts were accompanied with an anatomical drawing of the ear, demonstrating the eardrum in position. Even the copy addressed the device as a “scientific invention,” rhetorically ensuring its legitimacy over other kinds of artificial eardrums available on the market. By the 1910s, however, the company’s advertisements dramatically shifted focus from the technical and scientific towards the morose suffering of the deaf person—Wilson’s Common Sense Eardrums were not only designs of science, but a cure so that no one could remain deaf.

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The shift was due to the work of salesman Albert Lasker (1880-1952) who made a name for himself as an advertiser at the agency Lord & Thomas, by ensuring ad copy appealed to the psychological state of customers. Around 1900, Lasker proposed to Wilson a new ad copy, promising new and dramatic results. He replaced the technical drawing with a photo of Wilson cupping his hand to his ear; to Lasker, Wilson not only looked like “the deafest deaf man you ever saw,” but was evidence of a success story—deaf himself, now cured, by his own creation.[1] The new ad copy boldly proclaimed: “You Hear! When you use Wilson’s Common Sense Ear Drums.”

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Other ads continued to portray deafness as curable when using Wilson’s Ear Drums, with the copy expanded at times to include testimonials. Customers could also write and request a pamphlet, which provided additional information about the benefits of the patented device in amplifying hearing; testimonials from satisfied customers further added support to the integrity and success of the device.

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The advertisements for Wilson’ Ear Drums indicated that with the device, a d/Deaf person would be happier as they were able to participate in hearing society and include themselves in ways previously denied to them.

NOTES

[1] Jeffrey L. Cruikshank & Arthur W. Schultz, The Man who Sold America: The Amazing (but True!) Story of Albert D. Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Industry (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2010), 52.

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Distraction in Google Newspaper Archives: Kondon’s Catarrhal Jelly

I love the fact while I go through newspaper archives dating from 1900-1930s, I find the most amazing things that makes me pause in my research and pursue the new find. Case in point: this weekend, I came across this ad:

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The Telegraph December 1, 1908.

This was yet another example of an early twentieth century product claiming to cure the complications of catarrh: headaches, sore throat, and even deafness. Catarrh, if you’re unaware, is an unpleasant nasal congestion with an excess build-up of mucus in the throat, nose, ears, or chest. It usually follows after persistent cold or flu; and as colds and flus affect people differently, so too does catarrh. Some people’s symptoms go away after a few days while others remain plagued for a few years.

Some nineteenth-century aurists explained the cause of catarrh as owing to a defect in the Eustachian tubes, which connects the middle ear to the pharynx. Fluid can build up there, thus accounting for excessive mucus in the ear and temporary deafness that occurred in some patients. Decongestants, air pumps, syringing, were recommended as treatments.

By the turn of the century, patent medicine in America became widespread through advertisements. Which leads me back to the advert I came across, for Kondon’s Catarrhal Jelly, which I’ve never heard of before. Naturally, I started digging into the product to uncover its history: was it a reputable product or another patented medicine propagated by a “quack” boasting of its ineffectiveness?

The advert indicates the product was manufactured in Minneapolis, Minnesota. So, off I searched for the Minnesota archives and found a bio of one Thomas N. Kenyon (1863-1935), the owner of the Kondon Manufacturing Company, which produced proprietary medicine in Minneapolis. Kenyon worked on a farm in New York state until he arrived to Minneapolis in 1882 and worked in a grocery store, eventually moving up as a traveling salesman for Frederick F. Ingram, drug specialist of Detroit.[1] Around the late 1890s, he developed Kondon’s Catarrhal Jelly.

The Jelly was initially distributed by free samples (enough for seven days) to increase its reputation:

Enough to prove to you conclusively that it is the most marvellous remedy for catarrh, the pleasantest, safest, most soothing and healing method for the treatment of this foul disease. [2]

Eventually the business grew to such an extent that Kenyon acquired a property to manufacture and spread the distribution. According to Rev. Marion Daniel Shutter, the business multiplied once Kenyon turned to newspaper advertising after a few years of mail-order samples and testimonials:

Since that time he has steadily increased his appropriation among the prominent dallies of the east and middle west. He is thoroughly systematic in his advertising and a firm believer in concentration…The success he has achieved, while in a great measure due to hard work and judicious advertising, could never have been accomplished without the backing of merit.

The Jelly was widely recognized throughout North America and England.

Kenyon’s life is grand with tales. He worked as the Director of the Minneapolis National Bank, he collected cars and driving horses, and apparently a domestic servant employed in his house was charged with insanity after she contemplated suicide following an unhappy love affair.

I searched through google newspaper archives quickly for more Kondon’s advertisements and came across this series from 1917.

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Gettysburg Times, February 28, 1917
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The Gazette Times, February 12, 1917
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The Day March 12, 1917

Clearly these ads depict how easy and versatile the product is, for a variety of everyday settings. Here’s another advert I found that highlights the longevity –and hence, general trustworthiness–of the company and product.

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The Pittsburgh Press Dec 15, 1921

Advertisements between 1930 and 1932 were overseen by the Mac Martin Advertising Company, a prominent figure in the advertising community of Minneapolis.

That’s as far as I got before I realized I really should get back to writing my overdue article…

NOTES:

[1] Rev. Marion Daniel Shutter, History of Minneapolis, Gateway to the Northwest Volume III (Chicago & Minneapolis: The S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1923), 450-453.

[2] Meriden Morning Record October 6, 1908.

“Tiny Megaphones:” Leonard Invisible Antiseptic Eardrums

In the 1900s, A.O. Leonard of New York City engaged in a mail-order business selling his “Invisible Antiseptic Ear Drums,” which he claimed could cure deafness. Artificial eardrums were quite popular during the turn of the century, particularly in the United States; numerous companies advertised and sold all sorts of eardrums as cures for deafness. Some of these eardrum designs were even patented.

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Leonard’s business relied on letters from patients expressing their fondness for his product and offering their own testimonies. The product wasn’t cheap–$5.00 for a pair and included “Leonard Ear Oil.” Additional bottles of the oil were sold at $1.00, only for those who had already purchased the eardrums. During 1917-18, Leonard began to cease his mail-order business for the eardrum, instead promoting the “Leonard ear oil” as a separate product. The oil, which boasted it could cure irremediable deafness, was sold through drug stores. The patient was advised to rub the oil at the back of the ear (rather than inside the ears), and in the nostrils. It was supposedly especially beneficial for individuals suffering from catarrh.

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Around the same time, the Department of Health at the City of New York obtained some of the oil and analyzed its components. The oil included: petrolatum, soft soap (ammonium oleate), oleic acid, camphor, eucalyptol, alcohol, and water. Shortly after, the Department of Health lodged a complaint against Leonard; he was then arrested and arraigned, judged guilty of making false and misleading claims. On 14 July 1918, he was sentenced to thirty days in jail or to pay a fine of $250. He paid the fine. The Department of Health additionally notified all druggists to discontinue selling or promoting “Leonard ear oil” or even the eardrums.

Leonard may have ceased his business in New York, but apparently started anew in Cleveland, where once again, the Commissioner of Health of Cleveland issued an order to discontinue Leonard’s products. Apparently Leonard also had a Canadian distributor in Toronto (Martby Brothers, Ltd).

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