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Philadelphia ‘Health for Sale’ Exhibit Retraces Medicinal History in Vintage Ads

May 5, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is featuring an exhibit of vintage medical posters that advertise cures for all kinds of ailments. Health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser reports on the advertisements-turned-art.
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, advertisements for medicines as art.

NewsHour health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser reports.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: You may not ever have beaten a cold with Ayer’s Cherry Pectoral or picked up a bottle of Bile Beans at your local pharmacy, but these products make up some of the balms, tonics and pills that were stepping stones on the way to contemporary medicine.

And many of the posters advertising them are on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The exhibit is called “Health for Sale,” with dozens of images that document the turns and shifts of medical history with vivid color and a good sense of humor, too.

Innis Shoemaker is one of the curators of the show.

INNIS SHOEMAKER, Philadelphia Museum of Art: These posters come from many, many countries, mostly France, mostly America, but there is one from Hungary. There is a Chinese one, a Japanese one.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It draws from the collection of William H. Helfand who began to collect prints with medical subjects in the 1950s as an executive at a pharmaceutical company.

INNIS SHOEMAKER: He bought his first medical print in about the 1950s. And then he kind of went on from there. And as he moved around the world with his job, he formed this enormous collection, which now is, like, 7,500 prints, posters, all of these different things that have to do with medicine and pharmacy.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: They’re basically advertisements, aren’t they?

INNIS SHOEMAKER: That’s right. These obviously are all based upon selling products.

The earliest ones, I think, begin around the 1840s. And what you find is incredibly various kinds of design. We love them because, not just for their artistic value because of their design and their color, but also because some of them are just really humorous.

They don’t list side effects. They show the results of the…

(LAUGHTER)

INNIS SHOEMAKER: … of what this can do for you.

One that I think is funny is this one right over here, which is the Sparklet Nasal, which shows a woman holding a kind of dispenser of this product that she’s holding up to her nose. And obviously this is something that has radically improved her breathing.

Or this one over the here, which is another one that I love, which is the — is a mother happily combing this product through her daughter’s hair because she has lice. And everybody is just happy, the poor girl who’s got lice in her hair, sitting there while her mother combs her hair, as though nothing is wrong at all.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Why is this art?

INNIS SHOEMAKER: I think it’s a combination of things, first-rate design. It has to do with the production of it, as most — many of them are color lithographs.

But mostly it just has to do with the successful communication of the image. It is not how you would define fine art, but it’s popular art and some of them are very beautiful.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Such strong images were tools of persuasion and their messages reflect preoccupations with illnesses that have since become rare in the Western world. Other concerns continue to come up in public health communities.

Whatever the symptoms, ads for their cure targeted a very specific audience.

INNIS SHOEMAKER: Most of these products were advertised for health professionals and not the way things are today for the general public.

I think they definitely show where medicine was at the time, because some of them, such as this one over here, I mean, that was a real product. And you don’t see that around anymore. Aspirin for example — Bayer Aspirin is over here. And so some of the products continue and others are just no longer with us.

This kind of direct advertising art is something that — you know, everybody sees advertisements all the time. And these are just so well done and so interesting to think about in terms of what is being advertised and how they’re doing it, which is so different from the way it’s done today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The “Health for Sale” exhibit will be on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through July.