These days were bombarded by adverts from products. There in the newspapers, on TV every 20 minutes, on our tablets and phones and posters around our towns and cities and we even get them emailed to us. We simply can’t get away from them but to our ancestors they were revolutionary as they had never seen before.
The first adverts were found in newspapers in the early 1700’s but they became most common in the Victorian ear. They advertised new and exciting products that had claims to aid their lives and their health. Many adverts were for medicines which may or may not have worked.
I’m interested in medicine advertising as 2 of my 5 times great uncles ran a druggist store in Hudson, New York State. They left Leek in Staffordshire in the 1840’s with their father Hugh Wardle. Hugh had been a druggist in Leek and when he left his second wife and her children he set up with his sons in the USA. Now I like to believe they were a reputable druggist store as they were in Hudson for many years with the store passing to their sons but not all druggists were. Also one of the brothers graduated from Columbia University as a physician and he was a Reverend.
There were the quacks who sold drugs and devices which claimed to cure ailment with bizarre methods. Some of my favourites were the adverts for cigarettes which claimed to aid asthmatics, which as we know probably did more harm than good. But because the advert said it would help people believed them. Also the adverts for vibration and electrical devices to help those of a nervous disposition that were nothing more than devices for intimate areas.
Another of my favourite remedies was for constipation. You could have an antimony ball which you swallowed, it went through you and cleaned you out and then you fished it out of you stools and washed it and put it back in the box for next time. The entire family could use it. Not dangerous at all!
It wasn’t just the things they were selling but it was what was in them. Some of the ingredients were just damned right dangerous. If they were putting plaster of paris and chalk in bread to bulk out the dough for bread, then what was in the quack medicines.
Can you imagine having a toothache and taking cocaine tablets for it? No wonder the pain went, you were high. Also cocaine is highly addictive so if the toothache went on for long enough you could end up addicted to them. The advert implies the drops are safe for children. Giving cocaine to children! Can you imagine these days if this was suggested as a cure for toothache in children, everyone involved would be struck off and closed down and probably shipped off to prison and the child taken into care.
Another advert promoting cocaine was as a hair tonic to get rid of dandruff and make you hair shine. Makes the modern shampoo adverts seem boring.
What gets me the most is that many of these medicines were not available in the shops. In the case of the cocaine drops they were but many it was just send off for them out of the paper. You had no information as to whether they were safe or what the ingredients were or even if they did what they said they did. We rely on stringent safety laws to make sure our medications are safe but in the Victorian and Edwardian periods there was no such thing. Further back in history the pills you got could contain fatal ingredients. Also who’s to say that once you sent off for you medicines that you would ever get them. You probably couldn’t complain to the newspaper as they just published the adverts.
Taking all of this into account our ancestors were taking a huge risk by purchasing and using a lot of the drugs sold via newspaper advert, at best they were harmless and may have had a placebo effect but they could kill you. It was probably best to stick to the druggists as hopefully they had training in medicines.
Hello and thank you for taking the time to read my ramblings on genealogy and history in general. I hope you find it informative and hopefully funny!