June 26

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?

Jun 26 - 6:26:1766 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (June 26, 1766).

“He undertakes to cure Consumptions, and the Golden Vein.”

Today’s advertisement demonstrates the shifts in everyday language and medical terminology that have taken place between the eighteenth century and today. To most modern readers it is not readily apparent which affliction John Peter Steg, “Practitioner in Physick and Surgery,” promised to cure when he included “Consumptions, and the Golden Vein” in his advertisement. Though tuberculosis continued to be known as consumption throughout the nineteenth century and is still familiarly known by that term, it is possible that Steg had other symptoms or maladies in mind as well. What is more certain is that reference to “the Golden Vein” has passed out of our daily lexicon.

So what was the Golden Vein? This affliction was also known as the piles (another term we do not employ today), but is commonly called hemorrhoids today. (Given all the euphemisms deployed in marketing a variety of remedies to be administered at home for some of the most sensitive and delicate health issues, modern purveyors of a variety of ointments, creams, medicated pads, and other products should revive the use of “the Golden Vein” in their advertising, don’t you think?!)

Hemorrhoids may have earned the nickname “Golden Vein” in relationship to the medical theory of the humors, the most commonly held view of the human body among European and Anglo-American physicians until the nineteenth century. According to this system, each individual achieved good health by balancing the four humors, black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. This helps to explain why bloodletting was a frequent treatment. Some scholars have suggested that hemorrhoids became known as the “Golden Vein” because they presented an opportunity to discharge excess or unhealthy blood and return balance to the body. Christopher E. Forth indicates that hemorrhoids “were sometimes praised as a cost-saving ‘golden vein’ because they were “an easy way to purge oneself of excess humours (thus obviating the need to pay a physician to do the honours).” Furthermore, Forth reports, “Many physicians even approved o haemorrhoidal bleeding as a healthy male counterpart to menstrual flux, perhaps as a sign that men could withstand losses of blood just as women did every month.”[1]

References to a medical problem called “the Golden Vein” do not register with modern readers, but John Peter Steg certainly used language that colonists would have understood. We continue to deploy euphemisms and code words when talking about the intersection of medicine and the body with consumer goods and services. The words may have changed, but the practice has endured.

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[1] Christopher E. Forth, “Painful Paradoxes: Consumption, Sacrifice, and Man-Building in the Age of Nationalism,” in Medicine, Religion, and the Body, ed. Elizabeth Burns Coleman, and Kevin White (Brill, 2009).

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