The Americanization of Edward Bok/Chapter 30

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The Americanization of Edward Bok by Edward W. Bok
Chapter 30: Cleaning Up the Patent-Medicine and Other Evils

IN 1892 The Ladies’ Home Journal announced that it would thereafter accept no advertisements of patent medicines for its pages. It was a pioneer stroke. During the following two years, seven other newspapers and periodicals followed suit. The American people were slaves to self-medication, and the patent-medicine makers had it all their own way. There was little or no legal regulation as to the ingredients in their nostrums; the mails were wide open to their circulars, and the pages of even the most reputable periodicals welcomed their advertisements. The patent-medicine business in the United States ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars annually. The business is still large; then it was enormous.

Into this army of deceit and spurious medicines, The Ladies’ Home Journal fired the first gun. Neither the public nor the patent-medicine people paid much attention to the first attacks. But as they grew, and the evidence multiplied, the public began to comment and the nostrum makers began to get uneasy.

The magazine attacked the evil from every angle. It aroused the public by showing the actual contents of some of their pet medicines, or the absolute worthlessness of them. The Editor got the Women’s Christian Temperance Union into action against the periodicals for publishing advertisements of medicines containing as high as forty per cent alcohol. He showed that the most confidential letters written by women with private ailments were opened by young clerks of both sexes, laughed at and gossiped over, and that afterward their names and addresses, which they had been told were held in the strictest confidence, were sold to other lines of business for five cents each. He held the religious press up to the scorn of church members for accepting advertisements which the publishers knew and which he proved to be not only fraudulent, but actually harmful. He called the United States Post Office authorities to account for accepting and distributing obscene circular matter.

He cut an advertisement out of a newspaper which ended with the statement:        Mrs. Pinkham, in her laboratory at Lynn, Massachusetts, is able to do more for the ailing women of America than the family physician. Any woman, therefore, is responsible for her own suffering who will not take the trouble to write to Mrs. Pinkham for advice.

Next to this advertisement representing Mrs. Lydia Pinkham as “in her laboratory,” Bok simply placed the photograph of Mrs. Pinkham’s tombstone in Pine Grove Cemetery, at Lynn, showing that Mrs. Pinkham had passed away twenty-two years before!

It was one of the most effective pieces of copy that the magazine used in the campaign. It told its story with absolute simplicity, but with deadly force.

The proprietors of “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup” had strenuously denied the presence of morphine in their preparation. Bok simply bought a bottle of the syrup in London, where, under the English Pharmacy Act, the authorities compelled the proprietors of the syrup to affix the following declaration on each bottle: “This preparation, containing, among other valuable ingredients, a small amount of morphine is, in accordance with the Pharmacy Act, hereby labelled ‘Poison!’” The magazine published a photograph of the label, and it told its own convincing story. It is only fair to say that the makers of this remedy now publish their formula.

Bok now slipped a cog in his machinery. He published a list of twenty-seven medicines, by name, and told what they contained. One preparation, he said, contained alcohol, opium, and digitalis. He believed he had been extremely careful in this list. He had consulted the highest medical authorities, physicians, and chemists. But in the instance of the one preparation referred to above he was wrong.

The analysis had been furnished by the secretary of the State Board of Health of Massachusetts; a recognized expert, who had taken it from the analysis of a famous German chemist. It was in nearly every standard medical authority, and was accepted by the best medical authorities. Bok accepted these authorities as final. Nevertheless, the analysis and the experts were wrong. A suit for two hundred thousand dollars was brought by the patent-medicine company against The Curtis Publishing Company, and, of course, it was decided in favor of the former. But so strong a public sentiment had been created against the whole business of patent medicines by this time that the jury gave a verdict of only sixteen thousand dollars, with costs, against the magazine.

Undaunted, Bok kept on. He now engaged Mark Sullivan, then a young lawyer in downtown New York, induced him to give up his practice, and bring his legal mind to bear upon the problem. It was the beginning of Sullivan’s subsequent journalistic career, and he justified Bok’s confidence in him. He exposed the testimonials to patent medicines from senators and congressmen then so widely published, showed how they were obtained by a journalist in Washington who made a business of it. He charged seventy-five dollars for a senator’s testimonial, forty dollars for that of a congressman, and accepted no contract for less than five thousand dollars.

Sullivan next exposed the disgraceful violation of the confidence of women by these nostrum vendors in selling their most confidential letters to any one who would buy them. Sullivan himself bought thousands of these letters and names, and then wrote about them in the magazine. One prominent firm indignantly denied the charge, asserting that whatever others might have done, their names were always held sacred. In answer to this declaration Sullivan published an advertisement of this righteous concern offering fifty thousand of their names for sale.

Bok had now kept up the fight for over two years, and the results were apparent on every hand. Reputable newspapers and magazines were closing their pages to the advertisements of patent medicines; legislation was appearing in several States; the public had been awakened to the fraud practised upon it, and a Federal Pure Food and Drug Act was beginning to be talked about.

Single-handed, The Ladies’ Home Journal kept up the fight until Mark Sullivan produced an unusually strong article, but too legalistic for the magazine. He called the attention of Norman Hapgood, then editor of Collier’s Weekly, to it, who accepted it at once, and, with Bok’s permission, engaged Sullivan, who later succeeded Hapgood as editor of Collier’s. Robert J. Collier now brought Samuel Hopkins Adams to Bok’s attention and asked the latter if he should object if Collier’s Weekly joined him in his fight. The Philadelphia editor naturally welcomed the help of the weekly, and Adams began his wonderfully effective campaign.

The weekly and the monthly now pounded away together; other periodicals and newspapers, seeing success ahead, and desiring to be part of it and share the glory, came into the conflict, and it was not long before so strong a public sentiment had been created as to bring about the passage of the United States Food and Drug Act, and the patent-medicine business of the United States had received a blow from which it has never recovered. To-day the pages of every newspaper and periodical of recognized standing are closed to the advertisements of patent medicines; the Drug Act regulates the ingredients, and post office officials scan the literature sent through the United States mails.

There are distinct indications that the time has come once more to scan the patent-medicine horizon carefully, but the conditions existing in 1920 are radically different from those prevailing in 1904.

One day when Bok was at luncheon with Doctor Lyman Abbott, the latter expressed the wish that Bok would take up the subject of venereal disease as he had the patent-medicine question.

“Not our question,” answered Bok.

“It is most decidedly your question,” was the reply.

Bok cherished the highest regard for Doctor Abbott’s opinion and judgment, and this positive declaration amazed him.

“Read up on the subject,” counselled Doctor Abbott, “and you will find that the evil has its direct roots in the home with the parents. You will agree with me before you go very far that it is your question.”

Bok began to read on the unsavory subject. It was exceedingly unpleasant reading, but for two years Bok persisted, only to find that Doctor Abbott was right. The root of the evil lay in the reticence of parents with children as to the mystery of life; boys and girls were going out into the world blind-folded as to any knowledge of their physical selves; “the bloom must not be rubbed off the peach,” was the belief of thousands of parents, and the results were appalling. Bok pursued his investigations from books direct into the “Homes of Refuge,” “Doors of Hope,” and similar institutions, and unearthed a condition, the direct results of the false modesty of parents, that was almost unbelievable.

Bok had now all his facts, but realized that for his magazine, of all magazines, to take up this subject would be like a bolt from the blue in tens of thousands of homes. But this very fact, the unquestioned position of the magazine, the remarkable respect which its readers had for it, and the confidence with which parents placed the periodical on their home tables—all this was, after all, Bok thought, the more reason why he should take up the matter and thresh it out. He consulted with friends, who advised against it; his editors were all opposed to the introduction of the unsavory subject into the magazine.

“But it isn’t unsavory,” argued Bok. “That is just it. We have made it so by making it mysterious, by surrounding it with silence, by making it a forbidden topic. It is the most beautiful story in life.”

Mr. Curtis, alone, encouraged his editor. Was he sure he was right? If he was, why not go ahead? Bok called his attention to the fact that a heavy loss in circulation was a foregone conclusion; he could calculate upon one hundred thousand subscribers, at least, stopping the magazine. “It is a question of right,” answered the publisher, “not of circulation.”

And so, in 1906, with the subject absolutely prohibited in every periodical and newspaper of standing, never discussed at a public gathering save at medical meetings, Bok published his first editorial.

The readers of his magazine fairly gasped; they were dumb with astonishment! The Ladies’ Home Journal, of all magazines, to discuss such a subject! When they had recovered from their astonishment, the parents began to write letters, and one morning Bok was confronted with a large waste-basket full brought in by his two office boys.

“Protests,” laconically explained one of his editors. “More than that, the majority threaten to stop their subscription unless you stop.”

“All right, that proves I am right,” answered Bok. “Write to each one and say that what I have written is nothing as compared in frankness to what is coming, and that we shall be glad to refund the unfulfilled part of their subscriptions.”

Day after day, thousands of letters came in. The next issue contained another editorial, stronger than the first. Bok explained that he would not tell the actual story of the beginning of life in the magazine—that was the prerogative of the parents, and he had no notion of taking it away from either; but that he meant to insist upon putting their duty squarely up to them, that he realized it was a long fight, hence the articles to come would be many and continued; and that those of his readers who did not believe in his policy had better stop the magazine at once. But he reminded them that no solution of any question was ever reached by running away from it. This question had to be faced some time, and now was as good a time as any.

Thousands of subscriptions were stopped; advertisements gave notice that they would cancel their accounts; the greatest pressure was placed upon Mr. Curtis to order his editor to cease, and Bok had the grim experience of seeing his magazine, hitherto proclaimed all over the land as a model advocate of the virtues, refused admittance into thousands of homes, and saw his own friends tear the offending pages out of the periodical before it was allowed to find a place on their home-tables.

But The Journal kept steadily on. Number after number contained some article on the subject, and finally such men and women as Jane Addams, Cardinal Gibbons, Margaret Deland, Henry van Dyke, President Eliot, the Bishop of London, braved the public storm, came to Bok’s aid, and wrote articles for his magazine heartily backing up his lonely fight.

The public, seeing this array of distinguished opinion expressing itself, began to wonder “whether there might not be something in what Bok was saying, after all.” At the end of eighteen months, inquiries began to take the place of protests; and Bok knew then that the fight was won. He employed two experts, one man and one woman, to answer the inquiries, and he had published a series of little books, each written by a different author on a different aspect of the question.

This series was known as The Edward Bok Books. They sold for twenty-five cents each, without profit to either editor or publisher. The series sold into the tens of thousands. Information was, therefore, to be had, in authoritative form, enabling every parent to tell the story to his or her child. Bok now insisted that every parent should do this, and announced that he intended to keep at the subject until the parents did. He explained that the magazine had lost about seventy-five thousand subscribers, and that it might just as well lose some more; but that the insistence should go on.

Slowly but surely the subject became a debatable one. Where, when Bok began, the leading prophylactic society in New York could not secure five speaking dates for its single lecturer during a session, it was now put to it to find open dates for over ten speakers. Mothers’ clubs, women’s clubs, and organizations of all kinds clamored for authoritative talks; here and there a much-veiled article apologetically crept into print, and occasionally a progressive school board or educational institution experimented with a talk or two.

The Ladies’ Home Journal published a full-page editorial declaring that seventy of every one hundred special surgical operations on women were directly or indirectly the result of one cause; that sixty of every one hundred new-born blinded babies were blinded soon after birth from this same cause; and that every man knew what this cause was!

Letters from men now began to pour in by the hundreds. With an oath on nearly every line, they told him that their wives, daughters, sisters, or mothers had demanded to know this cause, and that they had to tell them. Bok answered these heated men and told them that was exactly why the Journal had published the editorial, and that in the next issue there would be another for those women who might have missed his first. He insisted that the time had come when women should learn the truth, and that, so far as it lay in his power, he intended to see that they did know.

The tide of public opinion at last turned toward The Ladies’ Home Journal and its campaign. Women began to realize that it had a case; that it was working for their best interests and for those of their children, and they decided that the question might as well be faced. Bok now felt that his part in the work was done. He had started something well on its way; the common sense of the public must do the rest. He had taken the question of natural life, and stripped it of its false mystery in the minds of hundreds of thousands of young people; had started their inquiring minds; had shown parents the way; had made a forbidden topic a debatable subject, discussed in open gatherings, by the press, an increasing number of books, and in schools and colleges. He dropped the subject, only to take up one that was more or less akin to it.

That was the public drinking-cup. Here was a distinct menace that actual examples and figures showed was spreading the most loathsome diseases among innocent children. In 1908, he opened up the subject by ruthlessly publishing photographs that were unpleasantly but tremendously convincing. He had now secured the confidence of his vast public, who listened attentively to him when he spoke on an unpleasant topic; and having learned from experience that he would simply keep on until he got results, his readers decided that this time they would act quickly. So quick a result was hardly ever achieved in any campaign. Within six months legislation all over the country was introduced or enacted prohibiting the common drinking-cup in any public gathering-place, park, store, or theatre, and substituting the individual paper cup. Almost over night, the germ-laden common drinking-cup, which had so widely spread disease, disappeared; and in a number of States, the common towel, upon Bok’s insistence, met the same fate. Within a year, one of the worst menaces to American life had been wiped out by public sentiment.

Bok was now done with health measures for a while, and determined to see what he could do with two or three civic questions that he felt needed attention.