Mormon-themed Aphrodisiacs, Part 3 of 4: Advertising Strategies

By September 29, 2013

Note: this post discusses sexual activity in general and erectile dysfunction in particular, though mostly with nineteenth-century language.

In this week’s post I want to look briefly at the marketing for Franklin Bosworth Crouch’s Mormon Elders’ Damiana Wafer. To start, I think I should emphasize that to late 1800s non-Mormons, the “Mormon Elder” in “Mormon Elders’ Damiana Wafer” almost certainly evoked a caricatured church leader—an old man with a long beard and many, younger wives—rather than the typically young-adult “Elder” of today . [1] So… why name a drug for erectile dysfunction after religious leaders stereotyped as creepy old men? [2]

Advertising sex aids could be tricky business. I don’t know any demographic information about customers, but I conjecture that with self-perceived (or maybe partner-perceived) sexual dysfunction, consumers felt a degree of shame and insecurity. Furthermore, the use of chemical sex aids was, of itself, a violation of social norms and some professional opinion. Some physicians argued that a healthy diet, adequate rest, and sexual restraint could cure any sexual difficulties. Further, the same doctors asserted that many (most) male sexual difficulties were a result of sexual excess, defined as too frequent ejaculation, no matter whether in or out of marriage. In sum, the potential customer likely overcame socially-conditioned shame for needing a sex aid at all (no matter the reason), for needing it, as one ad put it, “due to Youthful Folly, Abuse, or Natural Failure,” and for using a chemical aid. [3]

Successful ads, therefore, had to protect vulnerable egos while both suggesting the violation of social norms (or acknowledge a prior violation) and assuring the drug’s efficacy and safety—all without getting censored or prosecuted for fraud.

So far as I can tell, the wafers were advertised in small ads or brief articles in newspapers, on “trade cards” [4], and on inserts in medical or pharmaceutical journals. These formats briefly summarized the wafers’ alleged attributes and directed interested parties to seek more information via a direct-mail “circular.” [5] The circulars I have examined are relatively small (bigger than letter-paper folded in quarters, but not much) and have 28 to 36 pages, of which ten or so have non-color illustrations; the covers were printed in partial color. [6] Some of the booklets are entitled, The Mormon Elder’s Book.

As I understand it, the two-step advertising process was part of the appeal. By hinting at information that could not be revealed in public documents, whether for the constraints of space or propriety, Crouch added an element of mystery and forbidden-ness to the product, which enhanced the enticements. The mention of “the medical faculty” (institution unspecified) suggested safety, respectability, and authority (though in 1880 none of those were entirely secure in connection with doctors).

The Mormon angle contributed both an enticement to deviance and an assurance of safety and effectiveness. Whatever else could be said about Mormon morals or bodies in the 1880s, the Mormons—at least the ones in the news—kept getting older and kept marrying. If Mormon leaders really were using damiana, it clearly did not kill them, and they certainly seemed vigorous enough in resisting federal efforts to stop them from marrying. The “Mormon Elder” was a suitable mascot for an aphrodisiac because, in popular imagination, a “Mormon Elder” was an old man who had frequent sex. (On a related note, see Cassandra Clark’s post on eugenic theories in a Mormon context.)

The strictures on public decency and mail fraud also lent themselves to the two-step process. Advertising that was too explicit was simply un-publishable. Materials sent through the mail that made too bold a medical claim were subject to punishment by the Post Office Department. Before the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, the Post Office played the key federal role in what little enforcement there was of any form of consumer protection. However, since Post Office agents could not open mail not addressed to them specifically, it was sometimes difficult to prove fraud. Crouch and his ilk partially avoided the potential for charges with circumspect public advertisements and then more explicit direct-mail “circulars.” At any rate, I am not aware of the wafers ever grounding fraud charges.

The “circulars” attracted some negative attention. One commenter described a circular as a “wicked little brochure…which is craftily written, and illustrated, with actually a cut in colors on the cover….” [7] A 500-word piece appeared two years later, describing the ordering of the pamphlet to discover its contents. [8] Despite what seem like crazily unsupportable claims (from the perspective of modern pharmaco-chemistry, neither critique attacked the circulars on grounds of fraud. [9]

[1] In present-day terms, a “Mormon Elder” probably refers to late-adolescent male missionaries or a member of the mostly twenty- or thirty-something Elders’ Quorum. I don’t know when the terminology shifted within and without Mormonism, but the expansion of the missionary program, its focus on younger missionaries, and the institutional priesthood shuffling and re-organizing in the early part of the twentieth century probably all contributed. We might even be able to make a case that the shift from Mormon Elders’ Damiana Wafers (1880s) to Mormon Bishop Pills (late 1890s) to Brigham Young Tablets (1930s) tracks the change in the meaning of “Mormon Elder.”

[2] Note that “erectile dysfunction” is a present-day phrase that does not necessarily correlate exactly with nineteenth-century diagnoses. Note also that though the drug’s primary function was to assist a male to have an erection, the trademark image was of a naked woman.

[3] FB Crouch, “The Mormon Elders’ Damiana Wafers,” advertisement, card insert, Canadian Pharmaceutical Journal 19.1 (1885 Aug): between pages 12 and 13.

[4] The “trade cards” were similar to present-day Mormonism’s “pass-along cards”: it’s more than a business card but less than a flyer. One side has a picture (if the one’s I’ve seen are typical, usually intended to be humorous) and the other side has basic information about the product and contact information for the company.

[5] For example, the last paragraph of one ad (1886) read: “The Mormon Elders’ Damiana Wafers have acquired the distinction of being, not only a simple, pleasant, and convenient vegetable compound, but one that is indorsed [sic] by the medical faculty, and relied upon by the heads of the Mormon Church, as a remedy for Nervous Dyspepsia, Debility, and all Weaknesses which would disqualify them as members of their faith, of which we can speak more fully in our special circular, giving testimonials and quotations from medical reports. Price $1 per box. Send for special Circular.” FB Crouch, “The Mormon Elder’s Damiana Wafers,” advertisement in American Druggist 15.5 (Whole No. 143; New York, 1886 May): 46.

[6] The illustrations show a couple progressing from childlessness to having a baby. They show scenes of the male reading a document (presumably the circular), the drugs arriving, the woman primping, the woman speaking to what I presume is a medical doctor, and the group admiring an infant, and so on. Besides the images of newspaper ads I posted a few weeks ago, a few of the trade cards and circulars survive in libraries and personal collections. The Church History Library has one circular and the L Tom Perry Special Collections of the Harold B Lee Library at BYU has two. I have not checked other collections. The three are pretty similar in content. (I compared the two BYU examples line by line; the CHL version is slightly larger, has a vertical flip-book format rather than a lateral pamphlet format, and has more differences in content than the BYU examples. I don’t recall if it has illustrations or not.) If you are interested, I have a first-draft transcript of all 36 pages of one of the BYU pamphlets along with some descriptive notes that I’d be willing to share. Overall I was pretty disappointed with the content. That is, the two-step advertizing worked on me, and I was expecting something salacious or shocking, but it turns out to be pretty standard medical boosterism. There are medical reports of erectile dysfunction and its treatment that would not have been printed in a late-Victorian-era newspaper, but Mormons only get a passing mention and the text is repetitive and, let us say, “content-light.” It’s a printed infomercial.)

[7] “So similar to the method adopted by the “Institutes” is that of F. B. CROUCH, DRUGGIST, 202 Grand St., New York City, in his “Mormon Elder’s Book,” that we feel no hesitation in including him this article. The wicked little brochure in question, which is craftily written, and illustrated, with actually a cut in colors on the cover, aims to introduce and spread use of the aphrodisiac Damiana! In the name of nature and of cleanness, what is unsophisticated America coming to?” No author listed, “Medical Institutes Again,” Boston Journal of Health 2.4 (1889 Jan): 86-86.

[8] “THERE appears in our newspapers the advertisement of a person who offers to send to the “afflicted” the “Mormon Elder’s Book.” Desiring to know what was the meaning of this suggestive little advertisement, we sent for a copy. It proves to be a little pamphlet advocating the use of a preparation of alleged aphrodisiac properties. A flimsy pretense is made of sending the book only to married men; but no questions are asked, and every applicant is supplied. [¶] There may be circumstances under which the use of aphrodisiacs are allowable, as when, for instance, heirs are urgently desired; but such cases are rarely seen outside of novels, and for one such it is certain there are very many in which the use of aphrodisiacs can be only productive of harm. Impotence, apart from the results of disease like gonorrhea, is always a warning. It is Nature’s protest against the abuse of her gifts. It means that, in one way or another, the vitality has been sapped, and that it is time to call a halt. Old age has come, either by the lapse of years or as the result of excess, not specially sexual, but more often excess in mental labor, in care, or in eating. Sleepless nights, following the excitement of the stock board, and efforts at recuperation from heavy meals of nitrogen and alcohol, are the causes of impotence. Added to these, in an incredible number of cases, are the fascinations of illicit connections; and these elements combine to form the etiology of impotence. [¶] Is it necessary to speak of the remedy? It is so plain that “he who runs may read.” It does not require the learning of the physician to prescribe for such a case, but a very little bit of common sense will suffice. Every one can see the truth, except the victim, and he wilfully [sic] shuts his eyes against it, and seeks for anything that will enable him to continue his excesses, at any cost of future retribution. As we remarked in the beginning, there are very few cases in which an intelligent and conscientious physician can prescribe sexual stimulants, and applicants for such drugs give their advisers an excellent opportunity to enlighten the minds of the patients on these subjects; but as men do not want to believe they are living wrongly, or are no longer capable of the work they lay upon themselves, they will turn to those whose advice is more congenial. Here is where the “Mormon Elder” comes in; and his devilish little tract shows the victim how he can spur up his flagging energies. No word is uttered of the consequences, the ruin of health, the degenerating nervous tissue, the shortening of life. Even in a government as little paternal as ours, it seems reasonable to expect that some way should be found of suppressing people who advertise methods of corrupting the morals and destroying the health of the community.” No author listed (editor: William F Waugh), “Pernicious Literature,” The Times and Register: A Weekly Journal of Medicine and Surgery (New York and Philadelphia, 1891 Aug 29): 163-163.

[9] The first presumed that the drugs work as advertized and the second assumes that no such drugs work. Both focus on the idea of direct-marketing aphrodisiacs at all.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. That is a really interesting idea about the ways of getting around allegations of fraud. Solid work.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 30, 2013 @ 2:43 pm

  2. Thanks, Edje. This is great.

    Comment by Christopher — September 30, 2013 @ 2:47 pm

  3. I really enjoy these posts.

    Comment by Saskia — September 30, 2013 @ 4:45 pm

  4. Thanks, J, Christopher, and Saskia.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — September 30, 2013 @ 8:23 pm


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