The 19th Century Illness That Struck Busy, Stressed-Out Americans


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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,” according to psychiatrist William S. Sadler.

The term first popped up in the 1880s, and was most likely coined by a foreign professional; according to one medical journal published in 1882, it was an English researcher, although Annie Payson Paul, author of 1891’s Power Through Repose, claimed it was 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 was 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 were said to have 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 elixirs such as Rexall’s “Americanitis Elixir,” and Neurosine, used to address the symptoms of Americanitis and other nervous issues. (Its active ingredient: cannabis.)

Famous sufferers included Theodore Roosevelt—who was sent on a retreat in the Badlands as part of his recovery—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Jane Addams, and mogul Nelson Morris, who in 1907, was said to have died from Americanitis. The condition was most often seen in middle-aged men; in 1925, a writer for TIME claimed that the condition 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.

Wonder what the doctors of the day would have made of our iPhone addictions?