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No evidence that ‘smile treatment’ existed for depressed women in 1930s

Is this rather creepy-looking image of a woman wearing a mask over her mouth a depiction of “smile treatment”, supposedly given to patients in the 1930s to treat depression?

The meme, posted on Facebook and being shared in South Africa, says: “In the 1930s, if a woman was considered ‘depressed’ or if she wasn’t ‘taking proper care of her husband’ it was legal for her to be sent to a psych[iatric] ward for a full attitude adjustment.”

The text in the meme claims that the photo “shows a smiling treatment used to condition a woman into always wearing a smile”. 

“Experts believed that if a woman saw herself smiling it would become natural practice and she would be ‘cured’. This often went along with shock therapy,” the text of the meme says.

‘The smile school is a hoax’

Through Google’s reverse image search tool, the image was found here, here and a number of articles, including one by the US Virginia Gazette, to illustrate a “smile club”. This club was supposedly founded in the 1930s in Budapest, Hungary, to combat the city’s high suicide rate. 

This blog reposted an article from the Sunday Times in Perth, Australia, published 17 October 1937, which reported on Budapest’s “Smile Club”.

The Sunday Times said the club began “more as a joke by a Professor Jenö and a hypnotist named Binczo, but somehow it caught on” and a school was created to teach people how to smile.

“Jenö says the methods employed at his school, aided by better business conditions in Budapest, are making smiling popular, and before long it is hoped that the name of Budapest will be changed to the City of Smiles,” said the Sunday Times.

However, there are no credible sources to verify whether this smile club or school was in fact a joke, a real institution, or simply never existed.

Photo ‘more pertinent to the 1950s’

In a 2017 article, fact-checking site Snopes said that the photo in the claim “would seem more pertinent to the 1950s, a time frequently portrayed as the apex of the American household, than during the 1930s and the Great Depression, when the main challenge faced by most people, regardless of gender, was just getting by”.

“Unhappiness wasn’t considered a gender issue during the Depression,” said Snopes. “Most people were too busy surviving to worry about whether they were happy or not.” 

While the meme claims the smile treatment “was a legal and common practice in the 1930s... not a single source is cited to support these claims”.

Snopes points out that the photo “does not appear to depict a patient in a mental institution - on the contrary, the subject is wearing street clothes, jewellery, styled hair, and makeup”. 

The claims made in the meme are unverified. – Taryn Willows


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