We have a number of mid 19th-early 20th century electrotherapy machines in our medical collections. For example, here’s a violet ray machine, designed for basic home use: a Master Outfit Number 1, manufactured by the Master Electric Company of Chicago, circa 1920. This machine came from the estate of Arlene McFarland Allnutt of Rockville.
The term “electrotherapy” – not to be confused with the more severe electroshock or electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) – covers a range of techniques, which use the power of electricity to deliver mild sparks, vibrations, or light to the skin or orifices. Unlike our electric curler, which claimed the new and trendy “electric” label but involved no actual electrical power, these machines did use electricity to power their magnets, vibrators, and vacuum tubes. We often take electricity for granted today, but in the early days of its discovery* it was exotic and exciting, and scientists searched for new ways to harness its power.
Our violet ray machine uses a small Tesla coil to power glass vacuum tubes which, when inserted into the hand-held wand and powered up, will glow with a purple light and emit faint sparks. (I know you want to see one in action: here you go.) This example, Outfit No. 1, came equipped with a generator, electrical cord and plug, hand-held wand, and “General Electrode No. 1” – all in a convenient, leather-covered and satin-lined carrying case.
The instruction booklet (viewable in full here) informs us that Outfit No. 1 cost $12.50, and explains,
The Violet Ray is a pleasant, effective means of applying the wonderful power of electricity to the human body with pain, sensation or shock, and is without an equal in relieving pain and congestion, stimulating the circulation and restoring good health, vigor and youth.
The Violet Ray is the ordinary electric current obtained from any [electrical] socket, nebulized and split up into infinite parts and produced through glass applicators called electrodes, in a violet colored stream, hence its name, VIOLET RAY. A huge voltage of electricity is obtained and applied to the body or hair but without any shock, whatever, the only sensation being a pleasant warmth.
There is no quackery or uncertainty about the Violet-Ray High Frequency Current. It is a thorough cell massage, and a wonderful stimulant, and while it is by no means put forward as a cure-all, yet it is of the utmost aid in restoring to normal the physical condition impaired from almost any cause.
(There’s plenty more along those lines, including illustrations; I encourage you to peruse the rest of the book, or this similar booklet for the Branston Violet Ray High Frequency Generator.)
In the 19th century, electrotherapy was used to treat a wide variety of physical and mental ailments. Along with aches, pains, and other somatic symptoms, machines such as these were used to treat those convenient, you’re-upset-and-we-don’t-really-know-why** diagnoses of hysteria, neurasthenia, and “nervous prostration.” By the early 20th century, electrotherapy was starting to fall out of favor with the medical profession. However, that did not mean that machines of this variety were no longer sold or used; alternative medicines, then as now, were quite popular, especially for home use. Consumers of the 1910s-30s could choose from a number of options, depending on their particular hopes and needs.
It seems there was an electrode or applicator for any problem. Our collections include this circa 1920 instructional pamphlet for a Halliwell Electrical Company violet ray machine, which explains the different functions; for example, here’s one page (click to enlarge the image, or you can first try to guess the uses of each one):
You will be interested to know that, according to this Halliwell booklet, “Violet Rays or High Frequency Currents benefit all living matter,” and will cure or aid in alleviating the following: Abcesses, Acne, Alopecia, Alcoholism and Drug Additions, Anemia and Chlorosis, Arteriosclerosis and High Blood Pressure, Asthma, Ataxia, Backache, Barber’s Itch (Sycosis), Bladder Disease (Cystitis), Bronchitis, Brain Fag [use “a spark just strong enough to have a good tonic effect”], Breast Development, Bright’s Disease, Bruises, Bunions, Callouses, Cancer [for “mild forms,” and please “consult authority” as well], Canker, Carbuncles, Catarrhal Conditions, Cataract, Chafe, Chapped Hands or Face, Chilblains, Cold Hands or Feet, Colds, Colds in Lungs, Constipation, Corns, Dandruff, Deafness, Diabetes, Diptheria, Dyspepsia, Earache, Eczema, Eye Diseases, Felons, Female Troubles, Fistulas, Flabby Breast, Freckles, Frost Bites, Furunculosis, Goitre, Gout, Gray Hair, Grippe (Influenza), Hay Fever, Headaches, Hives and Rash, Hemorrhoids, Insomnia, Leucorrhea, Lumbago, Massage [i.e, use in massage, not treating it], Mumps, Nervousness, Neuralgia, Neuritis, Obesity, Pains, Paralysis, Poison Ivy, Prostatic Diseases, Pyorrhea, Red Nose, Rheumatism, Ringworm, Scars, Sciatica, Skin Diseases, Sore Feet and Stone Bruises, Sore Throat, Sprains, Stiffness of Joints and Muscles, Tonsilitis, Ulcers, Warts and Moles, Whooping Cough, Writer’s Cramp, and Wrinkles.
The owner of our machine, Arlene Elizabeth McFarland (1896-1985), married George Battaille Allnutt (1887-1956) in 1919; they had no children. The 1920 census for Rockville shows them living at George’s parents’ home; by 1930 they’d moved to a house on Van Buren Street, where they lived out the rest of their lives. The 1930 and 1940 censuses tell us that both Allnutts were employed outside the home, doing clerical work for various local companies. Unfortunately, that’s about all I’ve been able to find about their lives, so far.
We don’t know why Mrs. Allnutt owned this instrument. Was it something she wanted, or something that a spouse, friend, or doctor gave her? (The 1920 census has George working as a clerk for the National Electrical Supply Company in DC; I kind of want this to have been a giveaway from his employer, but there’s no actual evidence for that.) Did she use it often, or think it was useless? Though the machine came from Arlene’s estate, it’s certainly possible that it originally belonged to her husband George. Though the end result (in this case, donation to a museum) might be the same, there is a substantial difference between an artifact that was deliberately saved, and one that was simply forgotten in a closet. Since it came to us as Mrs. Allnutt’s Rockville home was emptied after her death, we were not able to get the particulars of the machine’s story.
We can’t talk about this artifact in the specific, then, without the risk of misrepresenting Mrs. (or Mr.) Allnutt’s history. In the general sense, however, this instrument connects the lives of Rockville residents with those of women and men elsewhere in the country at the time – and with our lives today. Whatever their reasons, the Allnutts participated in a national health fad. In another hundred years, what early 21st century gadgets and tools will museums be collecting to show our own peculiar ideas on home health care?
*Some sources note that the ancient Greeks and Romans used mild electrical shocks – acquired via static electricity and electric eels – to treat various health problems. However, it was the more modern discovery of electricity that led to the ‘everything’s better with electricity!’ fashion of the mid 19th century.
**I don’t mean to mock the sufferers of these ailments, then or now. Today, the symptoms and underlying causes of these problems are better understood; we’re also less likely, I hope, to treat as “hysterical” the women and men to whom we don’t want to listen. For an academic view of the use of electrotherapy in treating mental illness, try searching through medical journals available online, such as this article from History of Psychiatry (19)3, 2008.