Leeches have been used for bloodletting for centuries. In fact, they became so popular in the 18th and 19th centuries that they were almost farmed to extinction in Europe.
Although falling out of fashion in the later half of the 20th century, their medical use is making a comeback in microsurgery and reconstructive surgery due to the anti-coagulant properties of their secretions, which is useful for reducing blood clots and venous pressure from pooling blood, and for healing skin grafts. (Read more about medical leeches in this useful BBC article.)
But despite their usefulness, it still must have been an awful challenge to make leeches attractive from an advertising perspective. They are essentially little vampires shaped like long black boogers, which suction onto your skin and suck your blood out. I can think of few things less appealing.
I think these vintage advertisements are remarkable in the ways they’ve each tackled the problem, from the elegant botanical illustrations to the generous use of exclamation points which make ‘Leeches! Leeches!! Leeches!!!’ sound more like an exciting carnival ride than a slimy, parasitic worm that wants to drink your blood.
// Images via: The Brooklyn Public Library; Wellcome Collection; National Library of New Zealand’s Papers Past; Life As A Human; Swindon Collection Central Library, via Flickr; Cabildo Museum via Wikimedia Commons; Jane Austen’s World.
A special thanks to Dr Robert Kirk at the University of Manchester, for identifying the ‘Bloodletting with Leeches’ image above. Dr Kirk is currently undertaking a fascinating research project on the cultural history of the leech, and I encourage anyone with an interest in this topic to check out a brief but riveting survey of his work here.