In this regular Cornucopia column, Curt Bench, owner and operator of Benchmark Books (www.benchmarkbooks.com), a specialty bookstore in Salt Lake City that focuses primarily on used and rare Mormon books, tells stories—both humorous and appalling—from his 35-plus years in the LDS book business.
The banner headline in the January 1894 Salt Lake Herald advertisement reads, “ARE YOU A WELL WOMAN?” The lengthy ad then touts “Viavi” as a remedy for various female disorders. The product (offered in various forms—some to be used internally and some externally) was promised to be a “boon” to “Eve’s daughters.” But husbands were also promised benefits:
A poor man’s sole cause of happiness is often a cheerful healthy wife and their babies. She may not be accomplished in social arts, but she has warm arms to enfold him. Men are governed by the same human longing, whatever their various ranks may be, and the hearthstone of a millionaire is made brighter if a wife be there who is NATURALLY prompted to the display of sweet emotion.
After selling book subscriptions for several years, brothers Hartland and Herbert Law formed the Viavi Company in 1886. Although their main product was designed to treat uterine and other female disorders, Viavi also manufactured and sold eye and ear treatments, tonics, and laxatives. Company literature further promised treatments for obesity, headaches, and even bad breath. Supposedly, the firm’s miracle products could help women regulate how many children they bore, improve the sexual health of both men and women, and cure just about any other illness, including cancer.
The American Medical Association took a rather dim view of Viavi, stating that if the Law brothers were correct in their claims, “then the whole medical world is all wrong,” and asking, “What reputable physician, not employed by them, could be found to agree with them?” The AMA review also noted that the Laws, who had started with almost nothing, were now affluent, their patrons consisting of “confiding sick and suffering women, to whom, not skilled in medicine, their literature appeals.”
Viavi products sold nationwide and were popular with Mormons in Utah for some time. Viavi ads ran in the Church’s Young Woman’s Journal for at least three straight years (1900–1903). That the ads would run in an LDS publication is puzzling since several years before this, the Church’s First Presidency discussed the company and concluded that it was no more than a “fraudulent money scheme.” In a 30 January 1894 letter written by Joseph F. Smith (then counselor to President Wilford Woodruff) to a Logan, Utah, stake president,1 Smith refers to the “pretencious [sic] and flaming advertisement” that Viavi had run in the Salt Lake Herald earlier that month. Smith’s letter says that Church leaders determined the scheme was designed to “prey upon the weak and unsuspecting.” However, he cautions the stake president against “openly opposing this scheme, for in so doing you might give to it undue importance, but we think you can quietly put a stopper upon it, and thereby save our people from being duped and robbed of their means by either unscrupulous or misguided adventurers.”
Isn’t it comforting to realize that such chicanery and scheming is a thing of Utah’s past? I’m sure readers will all agree that it’s hard to imagine that any company or person would try to deceive or sell a questionable product to anyone, let alone a fellow Saint, as part of a get-rich-quick scheme. Certainly not in the Mormon book and document business anyway.
1. Benchmark Books sold this letter to Utah State University’s Merrill-Cazier Library Special Collections. It is quoted here with the library’s permission