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Vaporizer, New York, United States, 1880-1893

This vaporizer produced fumes which, when inhaled by the patient, were claimed to treat diseases and conditions associated with the lungs and airways, such as asthma, bronchitis, whooping cough and croup. The lamp was first filled with paraffin, which was lit and then placed underneath the dish. This dish was filled with Cresolene, a type of antiseptic, and as it was heated it gave off strong smelling fumes. Other products could also be vaporised in this way, such as the opium-based oils used to treat asthma. The vaporizer was designed for use at night while the patient slept and had to be placed on a plate to prevent it falling over and potentially starting a fire. The vaporizer was primarily for human use, but the makers claimed it could also be used to treat animals and poultry. This device was one of a wide range of patented medical items that were increasingly available to the public towards the end of the 1800s. It was recommended for use both in the popular and the medical press, and in North America – where makers the Vapo-Cresolene Company were based – the vaporiser cost $1.75 (equivalent to £23.50 today).

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Glossary: asthma

A common condition in which the airways go into spasm and become constricted. It causes wheezing, coughing and difficulty in breathing. It is often a reaction to hypersensitivity, but can also be triggered by exercise or stress.

Glossary: whooping cough

An acute highly infectious disease, primarily affecting infants. Whooping cough gets its name from the severe hacking cough followed by intake of breath that sounds like a ‘whoop’. A highly effective vaccine was introduced in the 1940s.

Glossary: bronchitis

Inflammation of one or more bronchi (one of the larger air passages in the lungs), usually a result of infection. It is characterized by intense coughing.

Glossary: vaporizer

A device that turns substances into vapour or gas, especially for medicinal inhalation. The term also refers to an aid for people who are quitting smoking. (It allows them to mimic the act of smoking while reducing the harmful by-products that might otherwise be inhaled.)