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Tonics and Curatives


Marketing cures, sometime of dubious efficacy.

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 followed.

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