19 Real Ads That Prove America's Past — Believe It Or Not — Was More Messed Up Than Today

WARNING: This post contains disturbing historical racist imagery.

1.Our gun control/safety laws may be lacking in 2024, but they've been worse — a hundred or so years ago anyone could send away for a gun by mail, no questions asked!

Old advertisement for "The Forehand Perfection Revolver" by Forehand Arms Co., Worcester, Mass., promoting safety features at a price of $4.00
Jay Paull / Getty Images

2.And this gun manufacturer seriously put out an ad saying that children should use a revolver (instead of a toy pistol) as a noise maker on the 4th of July.

Vintage advertisement for Harrington & Richardson Arms Co., promoting a Young America double-action revolver for $2.50, with safety and durability emphasized
Jay Paull / Getty Images

3.You know what else is messed up? Before the Federal Food and Drugs Act of 1906, people could put absolutely anything in their products, which led to things like "Cocaine Toothache Drops," which claimed to be an "instantaneous cure." I bet!

Two children play with a toy house outside; an old advertisement for cocaine toothache drops is displayed, claiming it as an "Instantaneous Cure" for 15 cents
Smith Collection / Getty Images

4.And here's an ad for cough drops with quite the active ingredient. As the copy says, "The problem has been solved by the pharmaceutical compound known as glyco-heroin!" It will also "suit the palette of...the most capricious child." Heroin! It's good for kids, too!

Vintage pharmaceutical advertisement for Glyco-Heroin (Smith) promoting its use for coughs and respiratory conditions, emphasizing its effectiveness and scientific formulation
Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

5.Also, before the Federal Trade Commissions Act of 1914, advertisers could lie about their products with no repercussions...and boy did they! This "Health Jolting Chair" was little more than a rocking chair with springs, but it called itself "the most important health mechanism ever produced" and promised to strengthen the heart, lungs, and other major organs, cause weight loss, improve muscle gain, and even cure diseases!

An advertisement for "The Health Jolting Chair," promoting its health benefits, such as improving blood circulation and treating various ailments. Includes testimonials and usage tips
Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

6.This 1904 ad for Schlitz Beer shamelessly presented as "fact" that beer was healthy for people of all ages, and that "your doctor will tell you that pure beer — Schlitz beer — is good for you."

Advertisement titled "The Most Healthy Nations Drink the Most Beer" from Harper's Magazine, 1907, promoting Schlitz beer as a healthy choice for its supposed digestive benefits
Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

7.I mean, the bullshit truly knew no bounds. This electric hair brush (which wasn't electric at all but instead used magnets) claimed to be able to cure everything from baldness to headaches! Thank you, magic brush!

19th-century ad for Dr. Scott's Electric Hair Brush claiming to cure headache and neuralgia, and promising freedom from dandruff, falling hair, and baldness
Jay Paull / Getty Images

8.This 1920s-era ad for "reducing soap" claimed to have the power to make you lose weight and look younger! "No diet or exercising. Be as slim as you wish. Acts like magic...!" (Yes, they were saying soap would do all that. Soap.)

Vintage advertisement for La-Mar Reducing Soap, promoting fat and age reduction with non-internal, external application, boasting quick and surprising results
Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

9.And, as you likely picked up from the previous ad, they enjoyed pairing their bald-faced lies with a side of body-shaming!

Vintage advertisement of a weight loss treatment with an illustration of a plus-sized woman holding a fan. Text warns against so-called useless drugs and promotes natural remedies
Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

10.Speaking of telling a big ol' whopper while spreading negative body images, this cigarette ad from 1929 said it's healthy to have a cigarette instead of a treat, and all the beautiful women are doing it!

An old Lucky Strike advertisement featuring Constance Talmadge, promoting the brand with the slogan "Light a Lucky, and you'll never miss sweets that make you fat."
Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

11.Let me tell you...cigarette ads were really something else. This one says this cigarette brand protects your throat "and expels certain natural impurities harsh to the delicate tissues of your throat." Wowza! What an amazing product!

A vintage advertisement featuring a smiling woman posing with a microphone and a Lucky Strike cigarette pack, promoting the slogan, "a light smoke."
Culture Club / Getty Images

12.As you're likely gathering from these (and, you know, your knowledge of American history), women were treated like they had one purpose in life — to serve men! Cooking, cleaning, looking pretty, you name it. Sure, things aren't perfect in this regard today, but it was really something back in the day. I mean, look at this ad for "her Christmas present."

Vintage advertisement for a Bissell carpet sweeper, highlighting it as a perfect Christmas present that "lightens the burdens of every day in the year."
Jay Paull / Getty Images

13.Here's a 1955 ad about a teenager who proved she's "his kind of girl" by demonstrating she's capable of washing his shirts.

A vintage advertisement featuring a woman doing laundry with Surf detergent. A man is embracing her from behind as text praises the detergent's effectiveness
Picture Post / Getty Images

14.Then there's this 1901 ad for soap touting the endorsement of a majority of senators' wives. As the copy says, "Can YOU doubt that it's the best?" FYI, there'd yet to be a woman member of Congress at that time. Heck, women couldn't even vote for another 19 years. (And look at all those white women in the photos...not exactly a paragon of diversity.)

Vintage advertisement titled "Fairy Soap" claiming endorsement by U.S. Senators' wives. The ad includes portraits of women, stating Fairy Soap is the best choice for toilet and bath
Jay Paull / Getty Images

15.This ad happily presented men as helpless around the house when their wives weren't around (you know, because cooking is women's work and below a man, I guess):

An advertisement featuring W.K. Kellogg at a table beside a Kellogg's Toasted Corn Flakes box. Text: "My wife's gone to the Country – but there's Kellogg's in the pantry. Hurrah!"
Fotosearch / Getty Images

16.And, of course, many ads from the past were shockingly racist. This 1880 ad for boots, for example, featured crude depictions of the Irish and Native Americans:

Illustration showing three scenes: a man comparing pegged and screw fastened boots, soldiers in screw fastened boots, and a man holding boots claiming they outlast others
Transcendental Graphics / Getty Images

17.This 1893 ad for doll patterns boasted of having a wide variety of selections to choose from, including Little Red Riding Hood, a dog, a cat, and...a pickaninny (a pickaninny was a racist caricature of black children, often featuring bulging eyes, unkempt hair, red lips, and wide mouths depicted eating watermelon or fried chicken).

Catalog page featuring various stuffed animal toys and a jointed doll, including "Little Red Riding Hood," "Baa-Lamb," "Pickaninny," "The Owl," "Bunny," "Tabby and Her Kittens," "Jocko," and "Tatters."
Jay Paull / Getty Images

18.Images of pickaninnies were often used as "humor" in ads, like this one for panty hose from 1904:

Vintage advertisement depicts two Black children being chased by a Black woman with a stick, titled "Fast Blacks." Caption mentions "Duchess and Princess Ladies Hose."
Transcendental Graphics / Getty Images

19.Lastly, this 1853 ad offering to pay $1,200–$1,250 dollars to purchase Black people is a horrific reminder of our nation's racist history and slavery:

"$1200 to $1250 for Negroes. The undersigned wishes to purchase a large lot of Negroes for the New Orleans market. WM. F. Talbott, Lexington, July 2, 1853."
Graphicaartis / Getty Images