The American Chamber of Horrors

By: Vanessa Burrows, Ph.D., Suzanne Junod, Ph.D., and John Swann, Ph.D.

In the early 20th century, Americans were inundated with ineffective and dangerous drugs, as well as adulterated and deceptively packaged foods.

A cosmetic eyelash and eyebrow dye called Lash Lure, for example, which promised women that it would help them “radiate personality,” in fact contained a poison that caused ulceration of the corneas and degeneration of the eyeballs. An elixir called Banbar claimed to cure diabetes as an alternative to insulin, but actually provided no real treatment and caused harm to those patients who substituted this for effective insulin therapy. Food producers short-changed consumers by substituting cheaper ingredients. Some products labeled as peanut butter, for instance, were filled with lard and contained just a trace of peanuts, and some products marketed as “jellies” had no fruit in them at all.  Unscrupulous vendors even sold products to farmers, falsely promising they could treat sick animals – in at least one case, a product called Lee’s Gizzard Capsules killed an entire flock of turkeys instead of curing them.

Although the FDA sought to remove these unsafe and misleading products from commerce, it was severely limited in its efforts by the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act.  That law laid the cornerstone for the modern FDA and marked a monumental shift in the use of government powers to enhance consumer protection by requiring that foods and drugs bear truthful labeling statements and meet certain standards for purity and strength.

Over time, however, the shortcomings of the Pure Food and Drugs Act became apparent, as it failed to take into account the extraordinary changes in industries, products, markets, and advertising tactics. Dangerous drugs were a particular problem. As long as a drug met the law’s labeling requirements, the agency did not have the authority to remove even clearly dangerous products such as radium water and drugs with poisonous ingredients from the market because legal action against a drug product required a finding of fraud. If a drug’s maker could convince a court that he truly believed his own therapeutic claims, he won his case. In addition, the law provided no authority over cosmetics or medical devices, and did not specifically authorize standards for foods, which limited the agency’s ability to take action on behalf of consumers.

A popular book of the day, “100,000,000 Guinea Pigs: Dangers in Everyday Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics,” claimed that consumers were being used as guinea pigs in a giant experiment by food companies and makers of patent medicines, with the authors blaming the FDA for failing to act. But the critics failed to acknowledge the limits of the agency’s authority under the law at the time.

In an effort to inform the public about the 1906 law’s shortcomings, the FDA’s Chief Education Officer, Ruth deForest Lamb, and its Chief Inspector, George Larrick, led the creation of an influential traveling exhibit in 1933 to highlight about 100 dangerous, deceptive, or worthless products that the FDA lacked authority to remove from the market.

The exhibition was put on display at events like the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, at state fairs, and on Capitol Hill. It was so shocking that it was dubbed the “American Chamber of Horrors” by a reporter who accompanied First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to view the exhibit. Lamb also adapted the exhibit into a 1936 book in which she explained, “All of these tragedies…have happened, not because Government officials are incompetent or callous, but because they have no real power to prevent them.”

The exhibit, which was viewed by millions, was an enormous success, helping promote greater awareness and understanding about the FDA’s role in protecting the public and the need for greater consumer protection and the limitations on its power to do so. To this end, it played an important role in moving Congress to enact a stronger food and drug law – the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

The 1938 law, which has been amended many times and remains the law of the land today, brought cosmetics and medical devices under the FDA’s authority, and required that drugs be labeled with adequate directions for safe use. It also mandated pre-market approval of all new drugs, such that a manufacturer would have to prove to the FDA that a drug was safe before it could be sold. And it prohibited false therapeutic claims for drugs. The Act also corrected abuses in food packaging and quality, and it mandated legally enforceable food standards. It formally authorized factory inspections, and added injunctions to the agency’s enforcement tools. In short, it gave the FDA many of the means it has today to protect the American public.

Many of the products from the original Chamber of Horrors exhibit are in the FDA’s permanent collection, and, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the 1938 law, they are part of a special display currently on exhibit at the FDA. The objects provide a compelling visual record of how far science has brought us from the worthless and dangerous elixirs, foods, and other consumer products of the early 20th century, as well as underscoring the essential role the FDA today plays in protecting and promoting American health.

Vanessa Burrows, Ph.D., Suzanne Junod, Ph.D., and John Swann, Ph.D., are FDA Historians

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