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America was obsessed with this self-help craze 100 years ago

French pharmacist and self-help guru Émile Coué waves from the deck of a ship, circa 1923. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
7 min

The 1920s, the frothy decade following World War I, have been called the era of Wonderful Nonsense. Weary of war and politics, connected by radio and wire, and with more money on their hands than ever before, Americans threw themselves into fads and crazes.

There was the mahjong craze. There was the Charleston dance craze. There was the flagpole-sitting craze.

And then there was Émile Coué, the so-called Miracle Man from Nancy, France, whose “autosuggestion” craze was briefly the biggest thing in America.

For a period in the early 20s, millions of Americans grabbed their string of rosary-like “Coué beads” every day, stood in front of the mirror and repeated the French apothecary’s phrase of self-affirmation: “Day by day in every way, I am getting better and better.”

“In the early months of 1923,” wrote Frederick Allen in “Only Yesterday,” a 1931 history of the 20s, “the little dried-up Frenchman from Nancy was suddenly the most-talked-of person in the country.”

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It was an unlikely turn for a man in his mid-60s operating a clinic in a northeastern French city with a population — then and now — of just over 100,000. Coué had embraced the so-called Nancy School of Therapeutics, whose practitioners employed hypnotism in treating physical and mental maladies.

Coué’s enthusiasm for mesmerism waned when he found he was able to induce hypnosis in only a small number of his patients. Instead, he decided to cure his patients by inducing them to hypnotize themselves. Combining a druggist’s familiarity with placebos, a rudimentary understanding of psychology, a set of autosuggestive exercises from an American correspondence school and a bit of Catholic ritual — rosaries — Coué hit upon his own simple routine for improved mental and physical health.

“Every morning before getting up and every evening as soon as you are in bed,” he instructed in his 1922 bestseller “Self Mastery Through Conscious Autosuggestion,” “shut your eyes and repeat twenty times in succession, [while] counting mechanically on a long string with twenty knots, the following phrase, ‘Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better.’”

He called it Self-Induced Conscious Autosuggestion. By the end of the 1910s, a kind of cult had developed around him.

The reception for the self-styled “mental healer” was more mixed when he crossed the English Channel in 1922. The Times of London reported that every one of his scheduled collective demonstrations sold out far in advance. But the British intelligentsia was more skeptical. The New Statesman saw Coué’s bedlam-like reception as evidence of the resurgence of superstition, drolly remarking that “it was pleasant to see miracles coming back.”

When Coué visited a ward of “shell shock” victims from the Great War at Tooting Special Neurological Hospital, he passed his hands over a bedridden man’s quivering legs, chanting, “Ca passe ... ca passe” (“It is passing, it is passing”). Almost immediately, the patient emitted a shriek and threw a fit on the floor. The delirium quickly became general, the other patients laughing, crying and running around hysterically.

“That much harm if any was done to the men is improbable,” the New York Times reported, “but the episode is more than likely to close Professor Coué’s career as a suggestionist in London.”

Still, America beckoned.

On Jan. 4, 1923, Coué arrived in New York City aboard the SS Majestic, preceded by a tidal wave of media buzz generated by some of his PR-savvy American followers.

Ella Boyce Kirk, the author of a popular 1922 book, “My Pilgrimage to Coué,” lectured widely in advance of Coué’s arrival about how her mentor had cured her of chronic cramps and paralysis in her legs. “He is teaching self-mastery, a sort of moral and spiritual power that means that life will never be the same again,” she gushed.

When Coué’s ship docked in New York Harbor, a horde of journalists descended on the Frenchman. His U.S. publicist, known then as a ballyhoo man, had come prepared with a press release, which described Coué as “the humble bearer of a useful message” who had “never cured anyone.”

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Whereupon Coué immediately undercut that message by expatiating about the multitude of physical and mental problems autosuggestion could treat. His method “reduced the potentiality of disease,” he declared. It also “helps materially in curing defects of character. I should like to see it introduced in penitentiaries.” (A wealthy American businessman tried to make that a reality by donating 2,000 rosaries to California’s San Quentin prison.)

Over the next two months, the goateed autosuggestionist conveyed to thousands of Americans the same “ragged hotchpotch of advice, experiments and readings of testimonials,” as the New Statesman put it, that he had in England. This time, it worked: America was infatuated with Coué.

Couéism profited from Jazz Age America’s interest in Sigmund Freud and his theory of the unconscious. “Couéism as a topic of discussion eclipses psychoanalysis, the gland theory and all the other remedies for human ills that have lately been offered,” Current Opinion declared in June 1922.

Coué’s appeal wasn’t universal, especially among the clergy. If human beings were as spiritually self-sufficient as Coué implied, one reverend admonished his Manhattan congregation, “there would have been no necessity for Christ to come and die for us on the cross!”

For better or worse, Coué had touched a nerve. The disorders he supposedly cured were no more serious than stammering, flatulence and excessive yawning, but some 6,000 credulous New Yorkers still lined up for Couéite treatment. One observer reported seeing a man agonized by rheumatic twitches repeating the “day by day” mantra as he walked down Fifth Avenue.

If Coué’s reception in the East was generally warm, it was sensational once he crossed the Appalachians. In Chicago, Coué was greeted like a messiah. “The halt and the lame and the blind besieging Émile Coué for treatment of their ills overflowed the stage,” the New York Times reported on Feb. 4, 1923, “and were only quieted after the smiling little pharmacist from Nancy had halted all cures while police cleared the stage.”

In St. Louis, Coué proclaimed to 3,000 admirers, “‘You see I am not extraordinary,’ but they screamed and shouted and wept their denial,” the Times reported on Feb. 7.

For roughly the next year, the American Coué obsession flourished. But his claims grew more outlandish. By 1924, when he made his second tour of the United States, Coué claimed autosuggestion could cure baldness and allow a pregnant woman to choose her child’s sex.

By then, the Coué craze had begun to fade, as some of his American followers questioned whether autosuggestion was all it cracked up to be and Coué’s methodology changed. There was no longer any need to bother with rosaries, Coué announced; people could benefit by merely listening over and over to a phonographic recording of his message.

Coué died in 1926. A delegation of his American acolytes attended his funeral in Nancy. And then he fell through the cracks of American history.

But his ideas lived on. Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale echoed Coué when they evangelized positive thinking. So did Oprah Winfrey, who in O Magazine urged her followers: “Look at yourself in a full-length mirror. Now compliment yourself. Yes I can do it. Repeat those empowering words aloud every morning and every night.”

And so did John Lennon, when he sang in his 1980 song “Beautiful Boy”:

Before you go to sleep

Say a little prayer

Every day in every way

It’s getting better and better.