Vitamins Come to Dinner

Measuring the vitamin C in grapefruit, 1940s. Data compiled on the vitamin content of foods allowed for diets to be analyzed for vitamin deficiencies. (National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

Measuring the vitamin C in grapefruit, 1940s. Data compiled on the vitamin content of foods allowed for diets to be analyzed for vitamin deficiencies. (National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

Another vitamin product launched during these years remains one of the most successful brands today. As its name implied, One-A-Day was a once-daily vitamin pill, unlike Vimms and Stams, both of which required several pills each day. The multivitamin included A, C, D, and three Bs, but no minerals, resulting in a formulation that could fit in a single pill. 

On the Table

World War II came to an end, but America’s desire for vitamins went on. The pharmaceutical industry emerged from the war strengthened by wartime production and government support for other new products, including antibiotics and vaccines. In 1946 the major vitamin producers formed the National Vitamin Foundation to finance vitamin research in academic laboratories. Educational materials produced by the foundation’s Vitamin Information Bureau continually reminded consumers of the necessity of vitamin supplementation.

With the addition of vitamin B12 in 1955 the multivitamin pill was nearly complete, but a few improvements were still in order before the pill was fully formed. New films and coatings wrapped tablets in pleasing colors. Abbott Laboratories, makers of Dayalets, created Filmtab, an ultra-thin, taste-inhibiting coating for tablets that replaced earlier sugar-coating techniques. Packaging design and point-of-sales displays also became increasingly important to marketing strategies. Products competed for consumers’ attention on store shelves and TV screens, and a new breed of ad men mined the psychological forces, fears, and desires that drew consumer to product.

In the late 1950s, when a number of vitamin producers marketed their pills in imitation apothecary-style bottles, vitamins were figuratively “dressed” for dinner. The bottle’s antique charm blended well with the traditional forms that still dominated the American home. At the same time, the apothecary bottle, a recognizable symbol of pharmacies, lent respectability to the product within. Possibly no housewife actually felt proud, as one advertiser suggested, to have the bottle on her dinner table next to the matching salt and pepper shakers; but neither did she feel it a personal indictment of the meal she had prepared. Salt and pepper shakers did not suggest a lack of flavor in the food, nor did the bottle of vitamins suggest a lack of the nutrients necessary to keep the family healthy. The pills were a reassuring nutritional safety net because, as one vitamin ad stated, “We usually eat what we like instead of what’s good for us.”

Acceptance in the American home did not mean the vitamin pill had achieved legitimacy in the eyes of many health professionals and government regulators. At the National Congress on Medical Quackery, called in 1961 to draw attention to the continuing problem of health fraud, the Food and Drug Administration commissioner told his audience that the most widespread and expensive form of quackery was the promotion of vitamins and dietary supplements.

The daily vitamin pill continues to have a strong hold on us, even as numerous studies throw doubt on whether ingestion of such supplements does any good. Surveys in 2003 to 2006 indicate that over one-half of all Americans take some kind of dietary supplement, of which the most popular are multivitamins and minerals. The science remains inconclusive, based as it is on the complexities and limitations of human and animal studies. The 2006 National Institutes of Health report stated that evidence was insufficient to recommend for or against daily supplementation. As consumers, we are left to decide for ourselves, and many will opt for the reassurance of the vitamin pill, recognizing as we do so that we are subject to the manipulations and exaggerations of advertising. After nearly 100 years of development, the vitamin pill, born of scientific discovery, perfected by industry, and shaped by Madison Avenue, shows no sign of going away.

Diane Wendt is an associate curator in the Division of Medicine and Science at the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian Institution.