People really did buy into Opie's "miracle salve" in the Fifties
Classic sitcoms proved the only thing miracle salves were really good for was a solid laugh.
Opie lugs a box around Mayberry with a label on its side proclaiming MIRACLE SALVE in the Andy Griffith Show episode called “A Deal Is a Deal.”
Although many today think of "miracle salve" as snake-oil medicine from frontier times when people didn’t know any better, this episode shines a light on how the Fifties were just as fraught a time for anyone foolish enough to buy into empty promises.
In the Fifties, there was a product called Wunder-Salbe advertised in all the newspapers, promising to be a "miracle salve" you could use to relieve any pain.
That included, apparently, everything from arthritis to paralysis. This miracle salve promised to cure "inflammation, swelling & wounds, exzema, boils, carbuncles, bronchitis, burns, frost bite, old sores, varicose veins, dandruff, pimples, insect bites, athletic feet, bunions, rheumatism, asthma, bed sores, poison ivy, removing corns & warts."
But Wunder-Salbe wasn’t the only miracle salve around. There was even one miracle salve that claimed it could cure cancer.
It seemed so long as there was someone who wanted to believe in these salves, there was money to be made vending them.
By 1959, new miracle salves were still emerging, including a product called Pedolatum. Dubbing itself "something new under the sun!" and "a wonder drug for burns," the product lured buyers by assuring them it was "the foremost medical discovery in years."
You can see how a young, good-natured kid like Opie might want to make sure everybody in Mayberry had this stuff. When he was going door to door in "A Deal Is a Deal," he wasn’t trying to fool anybody. He thought he had the real deal up for sale.
Inflating the healing and medicinal properties of products can cause real harm, though, and the term "miracle salve" today is synonymous with snake oil, an obvious false cure.
Of course, many people in the Fifties knew to doubt these dubious products, and just as sitcoms like The Andy Griffith Show had started having fun with miracle salves, average Joes had begun joking about bogus treatments.
In 1952, a Pennsylvania reverend was awarded a "Liars' Trophy" and $50 for his entry in a competition of bold lies passed off as truths. He won with a whopper about a "miracle salve which grew a new dog on the end of a tail after the animal had been killed by an auto."
One type of "miracle salve" that has endured, however, is tied to human hair growth.
In the Fifties, the Vice President of Purdue University pushed atom-bomb scientists to collaborate with agriculturists to develop a hair tonic that sped up the growth of a man’s beard.
He considered this an emergency, directing the scientists to use nuclear fission to borrow from gardening and fertilize the human head.
And he was so certain this miracle salve would work that he told the scientists to make sure they could stop the hair growth once they started it, worried about beards growing for miles like a Shel Silverstein drawing.
Unlike the reputation of most miracle salves, though, which marketed themselves off false promises, the V.P. did expect to slap a warning label ono his hair tonic.
"Perhaps, we had better warn the brothers not to use the miracle salve on their heads," he pondered to The Times in 1951. "The new hair might come out a different color."
That, of course, evokes another classic TV moment: the final episode of The Brady Bunch, which aired in 1974, a decade after Opie learned the truth about his miracle salve.
In "The Hair-Brained Scheme," Bobby, like Opie, hopes to earn money selling miracle salve, a hair tonic that accidentally turns Greg’s hair bright orange the day before his high school graduation.
We think these sitcoms are proof that all miracle salve is really good for is a solid laugh.