Quack, Quack, Quack: The Sellers of Nostrums in Prints, Posters, Ephemera, & Books

This authoritative and entertaining exhibition catalog explores the long visual history of a rich and neglected topic: medical quackery, from the itinerant seller of nostrums four centuries ago to the unsolicited spam of today's internet. Presenting a broad variety of material--prints by William Hogarth and Honoré Daumier, posters by Jules Chéret and Maxfield Parrish, and books by H. G. Wells and S. Weir Mitchell—Quack, Quack, Quack offers a delightful look at the remarkable artistry and elaborate language quacks used to peddle their wares: lavish pronouncements, excessive postures, and imaginatively exalted therapeutic promises.

The earliest quacks, we see, dressed elaborately, inflated their credentials, and embraced an extravagant vocabulary to market their panaceas, at times claiming their pills and salves would cure all disease. They were succeeded in short order by the makers of proprietary medicines, many of whom adopted quack-style promotional methods while introducing new ones of their own. These vendors advertised widely–often with celebrity testimonials--publishing broadsides, posters, pamphlets, and manifestos to amplify their claims.

And though recent strides in medicine mean that most people avoid quacks, and efforts have been made to rid society of patent-medicine makers, the quack survives to the present day, promising to make us all thinner, better-looking, healthier, or more sexually potent. This catalogue--and the 2002 New York City Grolier Club exhibition it originally accompanied–are fascinating reminders of how long such promises have been with us, and in how many unique and scintillating ways they've been made.


December 2018: Edited by Jessica Helfand and Michael Bierut, Culture is Not Always Popular: Fifteen Years of Design Observer will be out in early December from MIT Press. Buy the book here. See the video here.

November 2018: The Design of Business | The Business of Design conference will be held on November 2 and 3 at Yale School of Management.

September 2018: Face Value, Cooper Hewitt’s entry into the 2018 London Design Biennale, is named one of the four medalists.

July 2018: Jessica Helfand and Allison Arieff host a Next Stage event at Google on the ethics of design.

June 2018: Jessica Helfand is one of three artists chosen to participate in Face Value, the US entry into the London Design Biennale for 2018.

May 2018: Jessica Helfand hosts The Next Stage at The Mercantile Library in Cincinnati and The American Film Institute in Los Angeles.

May 2018: Jessica Helfand debuts The Next Stage at Continuum in Boston.

March 2018: Jessica Helfand is keynote speaker for the In Pursuit of Luxury Conference, Cape Town, South Africa.