Knowledge Library

Pharmaceutical Advertising From The Late 1800, Early 1900s: An Eye-Opener

Brand Marketing

South Africa's Museum of Branding, Advertising and Packaging, currently residing on the free-to-view <> , has added a dozen or so examples of pharmaceutical products from the late 1800s and early 1900s which would raise more than a few eyebrows were they to make it to ours shelves today.
The products, several of which were regarded as suitable for children, brazenly feature ingredients that are outlawed in today's medicine. Opium and cocaine (or "coca" as it was commonly known) feature in the brand names, ruddy cheeked children illustrate several of the packs.
One, a tonic hastening convalesce especially from influenza, claims to be endorsed by the Pope, and there's even an example of what was launched in 1898 as a non-addictive alternative to opium and morphine - the German pharmaceutical giant, Bayer's, best-selling drug-brand of all time, Heroin.

Warren Hickinbotham, who sent in the photographs of these products, quipped to the Museum's mastermind, Affinity Publishing's Ken Preston: "Maybe this is why our great-grandparents and grandparents were happier people than we are! Certainly, these pharmaceutical products from the late 1800s give new meaning to the words Good old days" he said.
According to, opium was regarded by surgeon Sir William Osler as "God's Own Medicine". The website tracks the history of opium from the first known written reference to the poppy in a Sumerian text dated around 4 000 BC to Bayer's launch of the product Heroin in 1898 to the 1991 drug-bust at a university close to the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants where opium poppies were thriving. says opium was probably the world's first authentic antidepressant. By the nineteenth century, vials of laudanum and raw opium were freely available at any English pharmacy or grocery store.
One nineteenth-century author declared: "[Laudanum] Drops, you are darling! If I love nothing else, I love you." Another user, the English gentleman quoted in Jim Hogshire's Opium for the Masses (1994), enthused that opium felt akin to a gentle and constant orgasm.
Children were introduced to the pleasures of opiates at their mothers' breast. Harassed baby-minders - and overworked parents - found opium-based preparations were a dependable way to keep their kids happy and docile; this was an era before Ritalin.
Sales of Godfrey's Cordial, a soothing syrup of opium tincture effective against colic, were prodigious. But Godfrey's Cordial had its competitors: Street's Infants' Quietness, Atkinson's Infants' Preservative, and Mrs Winslow's Soothing Syrup.
Indeed, one of the products submitted by Hickenbothan, Stickney and Poor's Pure Paregoric, gives strict instructions: "Five days old - 5 drops, two week old - 8 drops, five years old - 25 drops, adults - 1 teaspoon full". 

Opium was already heavily used in China as a recreational drug before these English drugs were introduced. The Imperial Chinese court had banned its use and importation, but large quantities were still being smuggled into the country, according to In 1839, the Qing Emperor, Tao Kwang, ordered his minister Lin Tse-hsu to take action. Lin petitioned Queen Victoria for help; but he was ignored. In reaction, the Emperor instructed the confiscation of 20,000 barrels of opium and detained some foreign traders. The British retaliated by attacking the port-city of Canton.
And so began the First Opium War, launched by the biggest, richest and perhaps most aggressive drug cartel the world has ever known, the British Empire. The Chinese were defeated. They were forced to sign the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. The British required that the opium trade be allowed to continue; that the Chinese pay a large settlement and open five new ports to foreign trade; and that China cede Hong Kong to Britain.
Peace didn't last. The Second Opium War began and ended in 1856 over western demands that opium markets be expanded. The Chinese were again defeated. In 1858, by the Treaty of Tientsin, opium importation to China was formally legalised. God-fearing British traders claimed that the hard-working Chinese were entitled to "a harmless luxury"; the opium trade in less respectable hands would be taken over by "desperadoes, pirates and marauders". Soon opium poured into China in unprecedented quantities. By the end of the nineteenth century, it has been estimated that over a quarter of the adult male Chinese population were addicted.
The web site also talks about opium in North America, where early settlers dissolved the resin in whisky to relieve coughs, aches and pains. Many distinguished early Americans grew Papaver somniferum. Rightly or wrongly, they would today be treated as felons. Thomas Jefferson cultivated opium poppies at his garden in Monticello. The seeds from its plants, including the poppies, were sold at the gift-shop of Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants until 1991 when a drug-bust at the nearby University of Virginia panicked the Board of Directors into ripping up the plants and burning the seeds. 

"The story behind the drug and the brands it spawned is fascinating; we are deeply indebted to Warren for letting us add them to the collection," said Preston.
"Preserving the history of South Africa's brands is the museum's primary objective because the influence those brands exert on consumer behaviour means they have also become part of the social history of the times, reflecting the fashion, art, literature, technology, health, sport and social norms of the day.
"The early days of branding in South Africa date back 200 years to a number of iconic brands that remain very much a part of the branding scene today. Brands like Nederburg, Mrs Ball's and Red Heart Rum.  Many others from the 1800s onwards have also stood the test of time and have rich and instructive histories to share."
Affinity Publishing has undertaken to establish the museum and get it functioning on a commercial basis before converting it to not-for-profit organisation. It would like to engage with all interested parties to source and make available a wealth of referenced information, and in time, provide a venue to showcase a wide range of branded product, advertising material, packaging and memorabilia.
It is proposed that the Museum venue will be large enough to host exhibitions, workshops, seminars, product and book launches, meetings, lunches and so on to help cover operating costs.
Preston is still interested in hearing from interested parties who want to donate or loan appropriate items, and in time, assist by providing a venue to showcase this fascinating archive. If you are able to help by dating or providing information on the products, posters or ads on the site, click onto "what you got?" at , or contact Similarly, if you have any items you would like to contribute or loan to the museum.
The Brand Museum's modest start-up collection includes:

  • an exhibition of branding in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s comprising 300 items from the "Mr Miller" FMCG collection;
  • 120 posters and advertisements from the Andy Rice Collection;
  • 30-plus early brand registrations from the Cape Colony in the 1800s, researched with the help of Cipro; these include Red Heart Rum 1877, Singer Sewing Machines 1880, Eno's Fruit Salts 1882, Sunlight Soap 1887, MAIZENA 1888, Royal Baking Powder 1888, Bovril 1889 and Roses Lime Juice 1889;
  • the fascinating collection of Springbok brand advertising from the 1950s to the 1970s, when the station closed down;  
  • the first TV ads flighted in South Africa during the 1970s courtesy of Ornico. 

The museum logo, in static and animated form, was created by Roy Clucas Design Process.

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