Medical Posters, circa 1920

William Helfand began buying medically themed collectibles in the 1950s when he started working for Merck & Co.

By | May 25, 2011

William Helfand began buying medically themed collectibles in the 1950s when he started working for Merck & Co. Over his 30-year career with the company, Helfand amassed thousands of posters and other old marketing paraphernalia, which were commissioned by pharmacists to promote the supposed medical benefits of products they had developed. A chemical engineer by training, Helfand eventually became involved in marketing and sales at Merck, and initially considered using some of the old posters to inform the company’s advertising because they were so arresting. “I’ve always had a feeling in my heart that the people in the past who did this were my figurative ancestors,” he told Philadelphia Museum of Art, which recently opened an exhibition on the posters. “These were the people who preceded me and the work I was doing.”

But he eventually decided against it. “I felt that the products we had were for today,” he says, whereas the posters were representative of an earlier era, when a lack of regulation of the sales and advertisements of medical products led to some questionable claims, such as a “scientifically constructed” electric belt that could supposedly cure liver, stomach, and kidney diseases, as well as “lung troubles” and “female complaints.”

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