One hundred years ago, on 1 January 1916, the Chemist and Druggist trade magazine presented the annual opportunity for manufacturers, wholesalers and importers to woo their retail pharmacist customers with new year greetings.
Browse through the New Year’s issue and you’ll be surprised at how much you can learn about war-time Britain from the advertisements.
As always with historical adverts, the design work itself is worth close scrutiny. In this edition, there are gorgeous Art Nouveau scrolled borders and ampersands, Arts and Crafts styled imagery, and the standard ploy of featuring animals and children, sometimes in the same advert.
But 1916 wasn’t any old year. It was clear that World War I, now raging for more than 18 months, was not about to end soon. The challenge was to get the tone in these new year adverts correct.
British made and British owned
The War halted Germany’s dominance of the pharmaceutical industry. The conflict interrupted German drug imports, and then led to the abolition of German patent rights. Practical supply problems were therefore balanced by opportunities for manufacturers to fill gaps left by German products. Many adverts on 1 January 1916 were understandably patriotic: Valkasa tonic nerve food, advertised on the cover, is stressed as “BRITISH made and BRITISH owned”
Products from Loofah Socks (“hitherto 90% of the loofah socks sold have been made in Germany”) to air cushions (for sufferers of haemorrhoids) made their British origins very clear.
German and Hungarian bottled mineral waters, sold for their aperient (laxative) properties, were an area ripe for British expansion. British Aperient Water was advertised as “an excellent and efficient Aperient Water to supplant Foreign Mineral Waters of similar character.” The advert for Tonalka made bolder claims: “The British Invasion of enemy territory will proceed during 1916. No German or Austrian Waters are needed while we have…[Tonalka]. It is a genuine British Product equal to the best Natural Aperient Water. The profits will bring you INCREASED PROSPERITY IN 1916.”
Military-themed imagery featured strongly. Sanaphos, “the ideal reconstructive nerve food”, showed a smiling injured serviceman receiving his medicine from a beaming nurse. Sanaphos was advertised in other publications as an effective alternative to the German “brain tonic” Sanatogen.
Two neighbouring adverts promote alternatives to the German disinfectant, Lysol, first established in 1889. Jeyes’ Disinfectants, with its patriotic nurse, claims that its Jeysol is “identical in composition with original German LYSOL, and equally efficient.” Directly underneath is an advert for British made and owned Lysol, manufactured in Stratford East.
Business as usual?
The practicalities of operating a pharmaceutical company during the War were spelt out by Evans Sons Lescher and Webb who tempered their new year’s message with a reality check: “Evans’ Supply Service for 1916 will be as complete and satisfactory as the abnormal conditions will permit.”
But overseas companies were still offering to import products and raw materials. Just one page advertises botanic drugs from North Carolina, quinine from Java via Amsterdam, “Pure Pharmaceutical Chemicals” including cocain [sic], pilocarpin and partein from Paris, and ampoule files from Switzerland.
Another practical problem thrown up by the War was the supply of suitably trained staff. Suttley and Silverlock Ltd, Pharmaceutical Printing Dispensers, reassured their customers: “A large number of our men of military age have joined the colours, but we are extremely fortunate in the fact that we still have a staff who fully understand our work – men employed by the House for many years and who are over military age.”
The Northern College of Pharmacy used the staffing shortages as a promotional tool, claiming that they were best placed to successfully train the additional pharmacists needed.
New markets for new products
The War opened up military markets. Kutnow’s Powder “for liver, kidneys and bowels” offered promotional free sample bottles as part of their Hospital War Service. Vermijelli, “for lice, fleas and other vermin” had been authorised by the War Office. There were also adverts for an Anti Gun-Deafness Device, approved by the Admiralty, and Tommy’s Cooker which was promoted as a gift to soldiers in the trenches or “Give him one before he leaves for the front.”
The overriding tone through the adverts is optimism, tempered by practicalities. Advertisers encouraged pharmacists by linking business success to the national cause. The United Chemists Association Ltd, formed in 1910 as an umbrella organisation for production and promotion, summed up the general approach with its pragmatic new year’s message: “Peace is not ours to command. Prosperity is open to all Pharmacists.”
Note: a significant number of pharmacy adverts refer to P.A.T.A., the Proprietary Articles Trade Association, formed in 1896 to campaign for controlled prices for pharmacy products. There is more on P.A.T.A. In the introduction from Popular Medicines: an illustrated history, published by the Pharmaceutical Press.