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Quack Eye Massagers

Richard Van Vleck
From American Artifacts No.41

A variety of devices designed to modify the shape of the cornea by applying pressure or vacuum were marketed for at least seven decades. Most claimed to cure all types of eye problems and to render eye glasses unnecessary.

The Natural Eye Normalizer

Levers caused the eyecups to rotate 1/4 turn, thus slightly twisting the eye lids and having no effect on the eye ball or its associated muscles, as claimed.

The Natural Eyesight Institute has its origins in the Barrett Institute, started in 1906, in Los Angeles, by Wesley M. Barrett. In 1927, Wesley's brother, Urbane bought out the mail order business and changed the name to the Natural Eyesight Institute. Urbane was a lawyer, and devoted his skills to writing his "system", and some interesting advertising copy, such as "Divorce eye crutches", and "Give your eyes a new deal".After advertising his eye massager for another ten years, he was finally convicted of mail fraud in 1937. The fraud hearing is reported in a Nov. 1938 Hygeia article.

The Natural Eye Normalizer was claimed to have been invented and patented by Wesley M or Thomas J. Barrett, but no patent exists in either of their names.

Neu-Vita Oculizer

The Neu-Vita Oculizer, from England, uses a crank and pulley system to rotate both soft rubber eyecups. The other end of the instrument is fitted with hard rubber eyecups with a concave faced plunger to poke the eye when the rubber bulbs are squeezed. Vacuum can also be applied by covering an air hole and releasing the bulb.

Dr. J. Stephens' Patent Cornea Restorer
Stephens' ad in Harper's Weekly, 1865.

Cornea Restorers restore impaired sight and preserve it to the latest period of life. Spectacles Rendered Useless! A cornea flattener could also be ordered to cure myopia.

Old Eyes Made New
Dr. Foote's ad in Harper's Weekly, 1865.

"Old Eyes Made New, without spectacles, doctor or medicine. Pamphlet mailed free on receipt of ten cents. Address E.B. Foote, M.D., 1130 Broadway, New York.

Save Your Eyes - Throw away your spectacles
Dr. J. Ball's ad in Harper's Weekly, 1873.

Save Your Eyes - Old Eyes Made New
From Dr. J. Ball's brochure

A brochure for Dr. Ball's Patent Ivory Eye Cups. The company guaranteed a cure in every case where the cups were applied as directed. They also offered a $10,000 reward (wager) to any physician who could take the same number of cases (thousands) afflicted in the same manner and do them as much real benefit as the eye cups by any other remedy. I assume this didn't include fitting the patient with eye glasses.

A survey of U.S. patents for eye massagers

April 22, 1851, Jonathan Ball, New York - Means of Renovating and Correcting Sight

Shaped cups of ivory or wood were worn pressed against the eyeballs to reshape the curvature. The apparent marketing success of these cups paved the road for the massage devices to follow. Dr. Ball became a major player in the quack eye massage industry.

Dec 18, 1855, Daniel Parish, New York
Instrument for modifying focal length of the eye.


The instrument consisted of a glass syringe with flared end to serve as an eyecup and a cork piston wrapped in silk and attached to a mahogany plunger and handle. The curvature of the eye was supposedly modified by applying either suction or pressure to the eye every evening for 12 minutes. Only one eye was treated at a time, alternating between eyes each week for a period of 3 months. The more obstinate cases required longer treatment.

Aug 13, 1867, John Winslow, Rochester, N.Y. - Improvement in eyecups.

Several logical improvements over Parish's glass syringe came 12 years later, in the form of a pair of hard rubber eyecups, connected by pieces of rubber tubing to a mouthpiece. That's right, the user pressed the cups against each eye and sucked on the mouthpiece, held between his teeth. In order to maintain suction on the eyeballs, the tongue was placed over the mouthpiece after the desired vacuum was formed. This device could treat both eyes at once and required only ten minute treatments each day, rather than the 12 minutes required by the earlier device. Also, treatment need last only one or two months to permanently restore the original shape of the eye, not three months, as with Parish's syringe.

July 14, 1868, Benjamin Maltby, Cincinnati - Improvement in eyecups. (Assigned to Charles Fosdick)

Less than a year after the Winslow patent was granted, Maltby received a patent for a major innovation, allowing the user to see while taking treatment. The eyecups were fitted with glass lenses and bows, thus becoming "vacuum spectacles". I suppose one could focus more closely on fine print simply by sucking harder.

Feb 7, 1899, Benjamin Stephens, New York - Eye-cup

A double eyecup connected to a single rubber bulb for equalization of pressure on each eye. The improvement over Stephens' previous patent is a means for adjusting interocular distance. A "myopic mold" can also be fitted in the eyecup and pressed against the eye by a spring. Stephens device was marketed by mail order as the "Ideal Sight Restorer". The president of the Ideal Co. was none other than the infamous Charles A. Tyrrell, M.D., better known for his J.B.L. Cascade Treatment. The Cascade was a patented enema syringe that cured all diseases, since all diseases including typhoid fever, were apparently caused by not flushing the colon.

May 7, 1907, Frank Dorment, Detroit - Eye massage apparatus and medicator.

This rubber bulb massage device was more elaborate than previous versions. The two eyecups were mounted rigidly so that one hand operation was possible. A myopic concave is fitted in each eyecup. Another major improvement, as quackery goes, was the provision for blowing medicated vapor into the eyes.

Nov 18, 1913, W.E. Peters, Denver - Eye-cup

A semirigid tubing and airbulb device which was much simpler and likely cheaper than Dorment's device.

Nov 17, 1914, Annie Stephens (Benjamin's wife), New York - Device for improving eyesight.

The "Sight Restorer", a mail order eye massager, was made in two parts, with the eyecups offered in several sizes to fit the user's eyes. Annie apparently continued in the business after her husband's death. The several improvements in this device reduced manufacturing costs and facilitated mail order marketing.

July 13, 1920, Joseph Roger, Paris - Apparatus for massaging the eyes.

Unlike the previous pnuematic devices, this was a purely mechanical contraption, and required an operator. Thus, it was probably marketed to quacks rather than to patients. It was adjustable for use on children, who may have been likely candidates for having their eyeballs poked.

Jan 3, 1928, Francis King, Los Angeles - Ophthalmic massage instrument.

Yet another squeeze bulb massager, but this one used water pressure on the eyeball to treat "certain irregular conditions". A new twist, and a sign of the times(1928), was a chamber to hold radium which was then dispensed into the flow of water to the eye cup. Vibratory motion was imparted by twisting the wrist while pressing the device against the eye ball.

The first paragraph of King's patent sounds more like the advertising copy for such devices: “My invention relates to an ophthalmic massage instrument that is especially designed for imparting pressure, suction, and vibratory massage movement to the eye ball for the treatment of various optical troubles and irregularities such as near-sightedness, far-sightedness, astigmatism, muscle imbalance, inflamed and congested eyes, or in fact any irregular condition of the eye that will lend itself to scientific treatment with the aid of vibratory or massaging movement, the pressure or suction of a fluid medium, such as air or water and the beneficial action of radioactive material.”

Additional reading:

Eye Aches and Eye Fakes, by Harry Gradle, in Hygeia, December, 1928.
The Natural Eyesight Institute Fraud, Arthur J. Cramp, in Hygeia, November, 1938.

other quack medical articles American Artifacts home page

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Contact: Richard Van Vleck