Americanitis: The 19th-Century Scourge of Stressed-Out Workaholics

It was thought that this disorder was a direct product of “the hurry, bustle, and incessant drive of the American temperament.”
Quick, fetch the Rexall’s Americanitis Elixir!
Quick, fetch the Rexall’s Americanitis Elixir! / George Marks/Retrofile RF/Getty Images

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, workaholics in America were said to be at risk for developing Americanitis, a dangerous illness unique to citizens of the land of the free and the home of the brave. It was thought that this disorder, a relative of neurasthenia, was caused by nervous exhaustion and was a direct product of “the hurry, bustle, and incessant drive of the American temperament,” self-taught popular psychologist William S. Sadler wrote in the 1920s.

The term first popped up in the 1880s and was most likely coined by an English researcher or, as Annie Payson Paul, author of 1891’s Power Through Repose, claimed, a German doctor. Either way, it didn't take long for it to become the diagnosis du jour.

There was some debate as to whether Americanitis was a disease or just a precursor to more serious health issues, such as heart attack and even insanity. But nearly all of the day’s experts blamed stress caused by the relentless pace of life in the U.S., which was only exacerbated by new technological advancements. Some pointed fingers at the proliferation of electric lights, which lengthened the workday.

Most experts believed that the only cure was for sufferers to stop and smell the roses. Elbert Hubbard, a self-help author of the era, suggested his readers “cut down your calling list, play tag with the children, and let the world slide.” For those too busy to work the few hours a day Hubbard recommended, there were a number of medical treatments available too, including electrotherapy and potions such as Rexall’s Americanitis Elixir and Neurosine, used to address the symptoms of Americanitis and other nervous issues. (Active ingredient: cannabis.)

Famous people with Americanitis included Theodore Roosevelt, who was sent on a retreat in the Badlands as part of his recovery; Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Jane Addams, and meatpacking mogul Nelson Morris, who was said to have died from it. The condition was most often seen in middle-aged men. In 1925, a writer for TIME claimed that the Americanitis was responsible for taking 240,000 lives a year. 

By the time the Great Depression rolled around, however, Americanitis was no longer much of a concern. No work, after all, meant no stress about work.


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A version of this story was published in 2015; it has been updated for 2024.