It was the most amazing piece of promotion I’d ever seen, not that it was obvious what was actually being sold. The ad was gorgeous, ambitious, a labyrinth of seductions and catchphrases, a symphony of pushed buttons, all for a brown bottle promising an unspoiled land, a loving community, and eternal life. It was the proclamation of a would-be national icon, something that as a product the nation has long since forgotten, but that as an idea the nation has never left behind.
The thing was off in a relatively dim corner in the sort of nostalgia shop one might find in any quaint American tourist town. In this case, it was Gail’s Oldies and Goodies Old-Fashioned Cafe and Ice Cream Parlour on Main Street in St. Helena, California, in the heart of the Napa Valley wine country. The place was filled with a collection of metal soft-drink signs from the ’30s and ’40s. In thrilling reds and blues, the room glowed with smiles for Hires Root Beer, Donald Duck Orange Juice, and, everywhere, Coca-Cola. From wall to wall, Coke Santa Clauses roared with laughter, Coke bathing beauties held up the perfect green bottle while languidly stretching their impossibly long legs, legs that on the all-purpose, all-American beach of the ads seemed to reach from Minnesota to New Orleans.
“Don’t Grow Old,” the Americanitis ad commanded in thick black letters. “We Guarantee Rexall Americanitis Elixir Will Make You Feel Younger.”
“This has got to be a joke,” I said to the person next to me. “Some snotty modern parody of all the stuff people used to believe.”
“It’s not a joke,” said a woman eating lunch under the sign. “I have a bottle of it at home. A friend who collects antiques gave it to me.”
“Does it work?” I asked.
It’s hard to know where the America depicted in the big, broad Americanitis poster begins. At the top, in the background, there’s a spectacular mountain range, the Rockies crowned with a steeple-like peak and covered with snow down to their lowest foothills, which suddenly turn green and smooth, a sylvan glade. Emerging from a line of great oaks at the base of the hills is a long parade of men, women, boys, and girls, all crossing a huge meadow and gathering at “The Fountain of Perpetual Youth.” The fountain is made by an enormous bottle of Americanitis Elixir: “One of the Rexall Remedies of Which There Is One for Each Ailment,” and this one “Especially Recommended for Nervous Disorders, Exhaustion, and All Troubles Arising from Americanitis.” Emitting a white spray that forms a canopy of medicine and fills the fountain’s pool, the bottle is as ugly as it is imposing; three winged fairies drape themselves around its side. On the ground, led by a boy or a midget dressed as a bellboy, throngs of excited children and calm, satisfied adults raise cups high, less to drink than to toast.
The picture all but screams with self-confidence, optimism, and joy, with a celebration of the American small-town utopia generalized into its natural setting. Here people gather to be cured of some vague malaise, some not-quite-diagnosable condition, but it’s plain that the setting is itself a cure. In fact, as you look, the setting, the cure, is so blessed—with its marriage of benign nature and kindred spirits—that the disease it purports to cure is itself a kind of blessing. Without the disease, you couldn’t have the cure, and the cure, patently, is what life is all about.
Still, any picture so full of detail as this one turns up oddities. The bellboy doesn’t look human. It’s a small-town utopia but there’s no town. On one side of the fountain, where there are no adults, the children mingle, pressing their bodies together; on the other side everyone, old and young, stands apart. They don’t look at one another; they don’t seem to know each other. They seem peculiarly lifeless, residents not of Anytown, U.S.A., but of a sanitarium. Winding down from the beautiful mountains, a line of solitaries has come from all over to discover—Americanitis? Or America? As if it weren’t there already? As if they’ve just heard about it? America or Americanitis? What is the cure, and what is the disease?
There’s an odd, powerful displacement in the image. It takes you into the distant past as you stand in the present, as you stand in the unimaginable future of the advertisement—unless in fact nothing has really changed. We’ve disremembered Americanitis Elixir, and its weird question of whether it named the remedy or the affliction, but we still drink Coca-Cola. Coke, too, like Hires Root Beer or Dr. Pepper, began its life as a nineteenth-century patent medicine, a “nerve tonic” you took to banish fatigue and depression. At the beginning of the century, fatigue and depression seemed to be everyone’s fate, at least if you read the new ads, and the ads were everywhere. In his breezily definitive 1993 study For God, Country and Coca-Cola, business writer Mark Pendergrast recalls a New York Tribune writer describing an “undulating country, breathing spring from every meadow and grove and orchard,” not that one could “see a single furlong of it without the suggestion of disease.” It was 1886; there were advertisements for cures painted everywhere, on barns, on trees, on rocks. “Americanitis” may have been a trademark, but the malady would have been recognized by all. As far back as 1881, Pendergrast notes, the writer George Beard, in American Nervousness, traced its causes to industrialization, an unstable economy, “too much freedom of thought,” “repression of turbulent emotions,” overspecialization, and above all the pressure of time.
Americanitis Elixir went on the market at a time when, to many, America itself was becoming unrecognizable. Between 1880 and 1910 the population of the country almost doubled, mostly because of immigration. Everywhere you went, there were people who didn’t look like you, who didn’t speak the same language: people who thought that they, too, were Americans. Before too long, assimilation had its effect, and the problem got worse. Just as you couldn’t tell the disease from the cure, you couldn’t always distinguish those who belonged from those who didn’t.
You might argue that such a disease has always made the country what it is, but that would mean giving up a lot. It would mean that, despite the pull of all that makes the Americanitis sign what it is, there is no cure.
New York Times, January 26, 1998