Tonics and Curatives
Marketing cures, sometime of dubious
Henry Wellcome and Silas Burroughs, the founders of the
pharmaceutical company Burroughs Wellcome & Co, transformed the
way medicines were marketed and sold. Burroughs exploited the power
of direct personal contact by introducing the new American
technique of 'detailing physicians' - selling directly to doctors
through pharmaceutical 'reps' - to the UK. The method is now of
course a staple of the industry.
Wellcome had a very modern understanding of the importance of
publicity to raise the company's profile, and entertained lavishly
to this purpose. He was always looking for original and striking
ways to draw people's attention to his products, once exhibiting a
tank full of live cod at the annual conference of the BMA to bring
to life a poster of Kepler's cod liver oil with malt.
Keenly aware of the power of brand, Wellcome registered the
'Tabloid' trademark to denote Burroughs Wellcome & Co
compressed medicines - a name that became synonymous with the
unique quality and precise dosage of the company's products). He
gave famous people of the day, including missionaries and
explorers, medicine chests packed with 'Tabloid' medicines - a
precursor to today's celebrity endorsement.
A century later, astronauts in the Apollo Spaceships continued
that tradition, taking Wellcome pharmaceuticals - including Marzine
to protect against motion sickness - on their missions into space.
This was highlighted on the Marzine packaging, which showed an
astronaut in space.
In 1880, pharmacy was still an undeveloped field. The precision
of microbiology was a thing of the future, and many medicines were
marketed as a blanket 'cure-all' for a range of surprisingly
disparate ailments. An advertising trade card for Parker's Tonic,
for example, promises to cure 'dyspepsia, neuralgia, sour stomach,
wakefulness, rising of the food, yellow skin...blood foul with
humours...frequent pains in your head, back and limbs... tomach,
kidneys or liver [disease]...coughs, consumption, asthma, colds,
bronchitis...indigestion, diarrhoea, dysentery, rheumatism, chills,
malaria, colic, and cramps' by rejuvenating the blood.
Such trade cards were a common means of advertising. They were
printed by the hundreds then handed out in various public places,
or hung in a shop window or on a wall, or placed alongside a
display of the product.
The notion of tired or impure blood, caused by harmful or evil
'humours' in the bloodstream, was common at the time and thought to
be the cause of many maladies, so many different tonics promised to
'cleanse' or 'rejuvenate' the blood. Laxatives, such as Burroughs
Wellcome & Co.'s Syrup of Figs, were also sold as blood
purifiers, because inadequate evacuation was thought to cause the
foul humours polluting the blood, which in turn caused syphilis,
gout and other diseases. People tended to have poor diets lacking
in fibre, fresh fruit and vegetables at the time, so constipation
was a real problem.
The design on the Syrup of Figs packaging accentuates its
'natural' ingredients, evoking beauty and health. Naturalness was
as important then as it is now, and pharmacists were keen to
promote this aspect of their products. A magazine insert
advertising Hunt's Remedy, for example, showed an elegant woman
strolling with her dog, with an inset panel showing a flowering
plant in a brown earthenware pot to emphasize the herbal nature of
the medicine. A small trade card advertising the very popular
patent medicine, Carter's Little Liver Pills likewise claims that
the pills are 'strictly vegetable'.
Sometimes such claims could be misleading. Dr. Joshua Webster's
Cerevisia Anglicana (a herbal drink) was marketed as a non-specific
remedy of vegetable composition, but in reality the active
ingredients included quicksilver and sublimate of mercury. Like
many medicines, such as Beecham's Pills, the drink was named after
its inventor - a common marketing technique of the time, designed
to give the purchaser the feeling they had cheap access to a
renowned doctor. The medicine would save the doctor's fee and pay
for itself, and for those living in isolated areas without access
to a doctor, the medicine would be their best or only resort.
Many 19th-century over-the-counter medicines owed their effect
due to the fact that they contained a narcotic drug or
hallucinogen. Dr. Seth Arnold's Cough Killer, for example, showing
a little girl with her dog in the advertisement, contained
morphine, a derivative of opium. The American Medical Association
began compiling a list of dangerous 'nostrums' in May 1909,
including alcohol, opium and its derivatives, morphine and codeine,
cocaine, chloral, and cannabis. Legislation eventually