This ad is unusual in appealing not to the potential consumer but to her weedy, emasculated little husband. (Presumably he’s her husband, because he seems stuck with her.)
Most ads for Allan’s Anti-Fat, however, were aimed directly at people wishing to lose weight. (N.B. the spelling ‘Allen’s’ above is an error that crops up occasionally.) Where images were included, they showed women, as in the one below, but the product was very much aimed at corpulent men too. Some adverts claimed it also cured dyspepsia, palpitations, rheumatism and gout, and prevented heart disease, apoplexy and paralysis.
The nostrum, costing 6s 6d per 6½ fl oz bottle, was a fluid extract of Fucus vesiculosis (bladder wrack), which had been the original source for the discovery of iodine back in 1811. It is therefore a forerunner of modern iodine-containing weight loss supplements, and while in appropriate quantities it might have assisted people with hypothyroidism, it wouldn’t have done much good to any random person taking it indiscriminately in order to shed a few pounds.
Another 1879 ad gives the following testimonial from Windsor physician Thomas Fairbank:
I gave some of this extract (Fucus Vesiculosus) to a very corpulent lady, who in three months lost three stones in weight without any change of diet. Since then I have frequently given it for reducing weight depending on the accumulation of adipose tissue, and have never found it fail. I may state that a patient who has been lately taking it as an anti-fat, and who always suffered very much from from rheumatic pains about the body, has been entirely free from such trouble while she has been taking the extract, a fact which she quite independently noted.
Fairbank was a genuine doctor and the Botanic Medicine Company certainly did not invent his testimonial, but in his original letter to the BMJ, he is clearly referring to Fucus vesiculosus in general, and had never prescribed Allan’s Anti-Fat. The case of the ‘very corpulent lady’ had occurred 15 years before. He also said how easy it was to make Fucus pills – a handy hint that the Anti-Fat proprietors understandably left out. Various opinions were printed in the BMJ over the next few months, with some correspondents, like Fairbank, broadly in favour of Fucus as a weight-loss aid.
Irish physician A T Carson, however, was not convinced:
Some who are paying expensively for the remedy may be surprised to hear that the Fucus Vesiculosus is here largely used as a food for pigs, and that it in no way interferes with their growth. It will require a number of well-reported cases to convince me that what fattens a pig will make a Christian lean. BMJ, 19 July 1879
William Murrell M.D. prescribed generic Fucus pills for a man. ‘C.G.’ who had enquired about the remedy, and asked him to keep a detailed diary of progress. The patient enthusiastically obeyed the instruction, leaving nothing to the imagination:
June 25th. Weight, 15 stone 6¼ lbs.; three pills; food and exercise as usual; had two motions.—June 26th. Weight, 15st. 6½ lbs.; three pills; four motions; urine very copious (not often, but when about it felt as if I was never going to leave off), smelling like some old horse, and very dark coloured.—June 27th. Weight, 15st. 6½ lbs.; three pills; five motions; much urine; appetite much increased; felt as if I had a tape-worm.
The next day he had ten motions, in case you really wanted to know. ‘C.G.’ briefly got down to 15st 5½ pounds, but only continued the treatment for 10 days. He concluded:
Towards the end, I fancied that I exhaled a kind of fusty odour from my whole body, but my feet and breath were stern facts. I have just weighed, and am 15st 7lb. If you think the liquid preparation will act I will try it, but the other seems (to use a vulgar expression) to be making me as rotten as a pear.
This, of course, has no specific reflection on Allan’s Anti-Fat – Murrell, C.G.’s doctor, had prescribed the pills himself and there is no way of knowing his formula. A subsequent correspondent, signing himself ″A Very Broad Church Parson,” replied that Fucus had caused him to lose a stone in a month, without any unpleasant side effects.
Fucus was a component of many similar weight loss products in the later years of the 19th century. The media today likes to compare us 21st-century bloaters with our healthy pre-McDonalds, non-computer-game-playing forebears, but the market for these quick-fix remedies suggests that anxiety about weight is nothing new.