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    Auction Finds

    Your own electric shock device to relieve pain

    When I saw the odd-looking device in the box on the auction table, I wasn’t sure what it was. It had the metal handle of a flashlight with a small roller at one end. There was also a protrusion of wires attached to a flat square pad with a sponge on top that resembled a pin cushion.

    I removed the faux flashlight tube from the box, turned and slid the tiny roller across the shoulder of Steve, an auction-regular and blogger, who a few minutes earlier had teased me with a back scratcher and a familiar joke (I’ll scratch yours if you’ll scratch mine).

    The Electreat device, and others like it, claimed to offer relief for all kinds of ills.

    He instantly called this strange apparatus a quack, as in quack medicine or a way to part people from their money.  Steve expressed some familiarity with old electroshock machines like this, noting that it was missing a bulb. As soon as he said that, I knew what he was talking about. I had come across a similar device with a bulb a week ago at another auction house.

    I took all of the items from the box so I could retrieve the guide sheet inside. It was called the Electreat, and the guide listed its price as $1. On the cover was an image of the Statue of Liberty, a crass way to appeal to the public’s sense of patriotism for a device purported to send shock waves through the body to relieve pain.

    “Two things cannot occupy the same space at the same time,” the cover said. “Shooting Electricity in forces the Pain out.”

    And inside:

    “If good for nothing else, Electreat would be worth its weight in gold for relieving pain alone. …. When daily treatments are taken the following effects may be expected: Return of sleep, increase of strength and vital energy, increase in cheerfulness and power for work, improvement in appetite …”

    The front of the Electreat instruction guide.

    Here’s a demonstration of how the battery-operated device worked. Scroll down the page or search for it by name.

    The Electreat was first manufactured in Peoria, IL, by Charles Willie Kent in 1919, and more than 250,000 of them were said to have been sold over the next 25 years. The portable hand-held device operated on “D” batteries.

    These devices seemed too much akin to the state-sanctioned electric chair and the image of electric shock treatments that were once widely used to treat patients with mental and other disorders. To think that people then and now self-inflicted themselves with electrical charges was a little unnerving. But apparently these were bought and used by many people during the first half of the 20th century, fueled by outrageous claims from manufacturers.

    The battery-operated Branston Junior Violet Ray Generator.

    The first violet ray generators were actually used as a legit treatment for skin conditions and minor relief of pain, according to the Turn of the Century Electrotherapy Machine website. They were bulky machines that doctors took to people’s homes and plugged into a wall socket.

    From 1900 to 1930, more manufacturers began making them and fiercely touting them. The machines purported to use electricity – more precisely, electric shock – to relieve all kinds of pain miraculously. Tens of thousands were sold before the claims were deemed false and they were banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the 1950s. They are said to still be manufactured in Europe.

    I found 1920 print ads from two manufacturers. RenuLife claimed “astonishing results – approaching miraculous,” and that its machine made “wrinkles and blemishes disappear.” The Violetta Violet Ray machine’s ad stated that it was not a vibrator, was not a passing fad and that its claims were based on “scientific facts.” It listed 31 ailments that the Violetta could be used for – from blackheads to falling hair to paralysis. The ads were among eBay listings for the machines and other items, with some titles denoting them as “quack.”

    Inside pages of the Branston Junior Violet Ray Generator guide shows a woman using the device.

    The first machine I came across at auction a week ago was a Branston Junior, apparently the baby model of the Branston Violet Ray High Frequency Generator made by the Charles Branston company in Toronto, Canada.

    The portable machine was still in its original box with all of its accessories, including an instruction guide with a cover bearing an electric ray. The contents of the guide was all gobbledygook, with muddled statements that didn’t make much sense:

    “As mists will saturate the leaves of flowers and furnish drink to thirsty soil, so this nebulous, all-penetrating, tremendously energetic but marvelously gentle High Frequency Current of electricity will saturate the human tissue from head to foot and feed them with the potential vitality from which a new increase of physiological nourishment is derived. … If you are suffering, give The Branston Generator a chance. … One short treatment will give you relief from pain such as drugs can never do.”

    I believe this was the machine that Steve was referring to. It had an attachment that was a short glass cylinder with a flat bulb at one end. When the device was powered up, a violet ray of color ran through the glass.

    Here are some examples of the machines made by Branston.

    The front cover of the guide for the Branston Junior Violet Ray Generator.


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