Ageing Shocker

vintage illustration birthday party and old age
In a gesture of maturity- though with about as much enthusiasm as swallowing a bitter pill- I finally came to grips this recent birthday with being referred to as “middle aged.”

So it was a shock to my baby boomer sensibility to learn that according to a post war ad, I would already have been considered a senior citizen.

Forget middle age. According to an advertisement from Northwestern National Life Insurance, I and anyone 40 and older was considered a geriatric.

Today when 80 is the new 60, it was a bit rattling to see that in 1948, 40 was the old 70.

The source was a 1948 ad in Time Magazine touting the miraculous benefits of Electro Shock Therapy for depressed geriatrics, or those folks 40 and beyond.

My Head Spins

I don’t know which was more jolting.

The fact of the enthusiastic endorsement of electro shock therapy for melancholia or the fact that I would have been considered part of the geriatric set.

Talk about a birthday surprise

The Shocking Truth Longer Life for People Past 40

vintage ad for electro shock therapy

Vintage ad Northwestern National Life Insurance 1948

As benign and invigorating sounding as a spring tonic, Electro-Tonic Therapy as the treatment was called in this ad was indeed a revolutionary panacea in the 1940’s.

Now called electroconvulsive therapy, ECT was developed in 1938 by Italian neuropsychiatrists and gained widespread popularity by psychiatrists as a form of treatment in the 1940s and 1950s.

“The Above Drawing illustrates electro-tonic therapy being used to correct involuntary melancholia, an illness besetting increasing numbers of people over 40” begins the informative ad from Northwestern National Life Insurance.

“This remarkable treatment which consists of passing an electric impulse through electrodes fastened to the head is painless. It requires no surgery, relatively brief hospitalization and is completely effective in 80 to 85 % of the cases.”

“Moreover, since melancholia is a ‘one attack’ ailment, the result is said to be permanent.”

vintage illustration demonstration  electro shock thrapy

Vintage illustration of Electro-Tonic Therapy from Northwestern National Life Insurance Ad 1948

Like a thunderbolt, the dark ages were over. This most modern of treatments was a boon to old age.

Media stories of shock treatment enthusiastically described the possibility of improving very ill, formerly hopeless patients. In an age before psycho pharmaceuticals, this offered great hope.   In this context permanent memory loss, confusion and the risk for vertebral fractures caused by violent convulsive shocks seemed reasonable indeed.

“Melancholia is one of the commonest forms of “nervous breakdown” which will cause of out of 17 Americans now living to spend time in a hospital as a mental patient. It is most likely to strike women 45 to 60 and men 55 to 65.” the copy continues ominously.

“Restoring a sufferer from melancholia-deeply despondent listless and in profound physical and mental lethargy- to his place in the family circle and in society marks another conquest for geriatrics, the science of helping people enjoy life longer.”

Extending Enjoyable Life Expectancy

Magazines were full of ads and articles boasting of the “Great strides that had been made in medicine and in extending the length of life. It is pleasant to contemplate a healthy old age- the peaceful enjoyment of those mature years which hold the richest satisfactions of life. Not until our own time was such a contemplation possible,” one ad explains.

“Although cases of mental illness are increasing the number being cured by psycho-therapy and new procedures such as electro-tonic therapy is increasing even more rapidly. Not only melancholia, but other distressing mental disorders are responding favorably.”

The Snake Pit

Time magazine cover Olivia D Havilland Snake Pit ad for Electro shock therapy

(L) Vintage Time Magazine Cover Dec. 1948 Olivia De Havilland star of new movie The Snake Pit (R) Vintage ad promoting Electro Shock Therapy 1948

The mass media enthusiastically embraced this most progressive of treatments.

In a brilliant stroke of cross promotion, this ad appeared in the same year as the film The Snake Pit, giving  Electro Shock Therapy  a further jolt of publicity.

In 1946 Readers Digest had electrified the country with its condensed version of  the book the film was based on The Snake Pit the best-selling book written by Mary Jane Ward based on her 8 ½ months experience in a state mental hospital.

The mass media enthusiastically embraced this most progress

The heroine Virginia Cunningham a troubled NY Housewife played by Olivia De Havilland in the film, receives a large number of therapies- from electro-shock to hydrotherapy to narcosynthesis to psychoanalysis while institutionalized.

Modern Miracles

Along with all the great advances in science, the  insurance ad goes on to explain electro-tonics place in the annals of medicine:.

“Thus the cure of these mental ills is fast taking its place with control of such physical ailments as heart disease diabetes kidney disease, anemia and others which once darkened the prospect of later life.”

“Now thanks to geriatrics, the average man or woman of 40 can count on 30 or more ears of leisure and accomplishment. Naturally to enjoy fully those extra years calls for a good savings and life insurance.”

And if the treatment caused permanent memory loss and confusion at least you wouldn’t remember what made you melancholy in the first place.

About this there was no confusion.

“Thanks to advances in modern medicine-new drugs and treatment of amazing effectiveness have extended our lives expectancy to better than 63 years.”

© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.




  1. From one middle aged person (still in denial) to another, happy birthday and many, many more!


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