By JIM ZBICK

jzbick@tnonline.com

The rapid increase in the obesity rate in our nation over the last several decades as well as other health concerns have led to an increase in the number of health clubs and fitness centers today.

The concentration on personal well-being is not new to our culture. A century ago, many turned to cure-all remedies like the famous Doan's Pills to cure their aching backs.

"With a back constantly aching, with distressing urinary disorders, daily existence is but a struggle. No need to keep it up," said one Doan's advertisement in the Tamaqua Courier in May 1910. The Fister-Millburn Company, based in Buffalo, N.Y., often used the personal testimonies of local people to endorse their product.

Mrs. Charles Fuhere of Tamaqua, for example, wrote about her struggle with an aching back before discovering the product.

"I tried numerous remedies but was unsuccessful in finding relief until I procured Doan's Kidney Pills at Bond's Drug Store," she said. "I continued their use and was absolutely cured. I am always pleased to vouch for the merits of Doan's Kidney Pills."

The advertisement stated that the pills were available through "all dealers" at a price of 56 cents.

Just as today, a fitness craze was sweeping across the nation. In an editorial titled "The Old Way the Best", a writer for the Courier told about the health-conscious movement.

"It is safe to say that there never was a time in the history of the world when people were more given to health culture than today," he wrote.

The writer began his opinion by citing the socialist writer Upton Sinclair, who documented economic conditions of the early 20th century. In the Courier editorial, the writer pointed out that Sinclair believed that fasting could clear the flesh and the mind.

"It was his (Sinclair's) sincere belief that if people took to fasting when they feel out of sorts they would be far more healthy and they could quickly shake off the maladies with which we are affected more frequently," he stated.

The columnist then took aim at the quacks and other hucksters wanting to profit from the "health culture" in 1910.

"The man who puts a breakfast food on the market and advertises it with a fair degree of cleverness as 'a great tissue builder' – or something of that sort – or the man who discovers that the blood of a goat contains a certain something that will spell sure death for the bacteria that lurk in our system, quickly accumulates a fortune," he said. "The truth is that we are fast growing to be a nation of faddists. We have our mind's eye on our bodies all the time."

He explained that the minute we feel "some derangement," no matter how slight, we set out to seek a remedy for it, and now the advice was coming from all directions.

"We take this or that patent nostrum or we do this or that calisthenic stunt," he said. "One prominent physician tells us we should eat but little, another tells that we should eat until our hunger is satisfied, and Mr. Sinclair rises up and tells us that from time to time we should not eat at all."

The writer then related how in "the old days," there was "relatively little sickness."

"Men and women took ordinary care of themselves, ate plain and wholesome foods, and did not have the quack medicine habit," he stated. "Breakfast foods, 'brain food' and kindred compositions were unknown, fortunately for the people. The world got along very nicely without them. The span of life was as great, if not greater than now, and the people were not troubled with fear and worry over their physical condition."

The 1910 census shows that there were 91.6-million people in the United States and 11.6 percent were age 65 or older. Living to age 65 was quite a milestone, since one had to survive infectious disease, accidents, poor hygiene and the other obstacles of the day.

The life expectancy in 1850 was just 39 years, while those born in 1910 had a life expectancy at birth of 48.4 years for males and 51.8 for females.

What type of work was "healthiest" a century ago? An article in the Courier in March 1910 stated that according to the census bureau, working on a steam railroad was the healthiest occupation for American males.

The figures showed that the railroad worker was far less liable to "consumption" than workers in the manufacturing and mechanical trades, the article stated.

"He is less apt to commit suicide than any other wage earner and suffers less from rheumatism and malarial fever. His nervous system, according to the statistics, is in excellent shape. Heart, disease and pneumonia are rarer among railroad employees than among any other working men."

In the list of "maladies" for workers, the only one which the railroad worker was more susceptible to having – compared to manufacturing and agricultural workers – was typhoid fever.