Until the early 20th century, of course, there was no legislation in place to limit the grandiosity of advertisers to the truth. So The Health Jolting Chair Company of New York deployed all the pseudo-science of the age to persuade women that its product constituted ‘the most important Health Mechanism ever produced’.
Advertising in magazines such as Harper’s Weekly, in the 1880s, the manufacturers claimed that 'The Health Jolting Chair' could solve the problems of the ‘cripples, paralytics … the corpulent, the insane, the blind etc’, as well as being ‘indispensable to the health and happiness of millions of human beings who may be living sedentary lives through choice or necessity.’
On a more practical level, it was claimed that the motion of the chair would dissolve ‘female congestion’, which may have signified anything from constipation or an unwanted foetus.
Applying classic quack formulas and cadences, the advertising lurched between enticing and reproving to the point of threatening, massaging the phobic pressure points of status anxiety and the shame of poor hygiene:
‘In the upper ranks of society, and especially of fashionable society, the fairer sex are particularly prone to neglect the taking of proper exercise …It is a requisition that cannot be dispensed with. It is a part of the constituted condition of existence, emphasized in holy writ …Nature has no use for the incorrigibly slothful. Many persons are too lazy to live; and they do not live. Their lives are shortened — disease fastening upon their ill-nourished bodies, sweeping them from mundane existence. The exercise of the most important parts of the body — the internal nutritive organs, comprising the heart, lungs, stomach, liver, etc. — naturally should receive the first consideration in hygienic living; yet these are the parts that are usually most neglected by the class of fair beings mentioned, as well as by most persons of sedentary habits and occupations.’
The consequences are of course dire: ‘a deficient amount of excretion of the worn-out nutritive elements, which collect in the general system, producing, head, nausea, sick, creepy sensations, pain in the bones, bad breath …’ and all the usual litany of quackable disorders.
Of course the true target of the marketing, as shown by the illustrations, was the female who wished to have a taut posterior but was unable to find any decent way to exercise that part of her body if she did not have a horse.
For her, The Health Jolting Chair promised ‘THE MOST HIGHLY PRIZED Feminine Attractions … A Beautiful Rich Complexion; Bright, Sparkling eyes; A Sweet, Pure Breath; a Graceful, Well-Developed Figure; Vigorous Mental Action; and a Vivacious Manner.’
Some writers have commented on the erotic potential of the Health Jolting Chair, suggesting that it might provide the same stimulation that horse riding may offer to the erogenous zones.
Looking closely at the mechanism, one sees a handle beneath the seat. It looks as if the user would wind it up and release the motion, rather like a music box. To me, the two side-struts appear as gratuitous as the advertising copy, but perhaps they regulated the violence of the jolts in some way. After all, the manufacturers claim, ‘It can be regulated so as to give it any degree of severity desired.’
To help achieve the most effective rhythm, the manufacturers suggested a musical accompaniment … the Jolting Chair Gavotte, as advertised here.
The concept behind the chair has not died, as this video of Ellen Degeneres shows.
Various websites devoted to the history of medicine have featured the chair, to much acclaim.
But my favourite comment is this one: ‘I'm not buying one, it doesn't wash the dishes at the same time.’
Michelle Lovric’s website