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.

“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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