Patent medicines and nineteenth century globalisation


I spent a good part of yesterday documenting some nineteenth century patent medicine and cosmetic bottles. Many of the brands are totally unknown today, such as Beetham’s glycerine and cucumber, yet were well known in their time.

A fairly simple search of various online newspaper archives brings up myriad examples of advertising, and a search of various federated sites such as Collections Victoria and ehive in New Zealand brings up quite a few bottles, not to mention ebay and the other trading sites used by bottle collectors.

I’ve already written about Hayman’s Balsam of Horehound, but as you dig deeper, it was not the only example of a vanished product. Beetham’s glycerin and cucumber was made in Cheltenham, Kay Brothers Linseed compound was made in Stockport. And there are doubtless others that I havn’t come across yet.

And mixed in with the imported products are a range of locally made equivalents, such as Baxter’s Lung Preserver from Christchurch in NZ, Woods Great Peppermint Cure, and also from Christchurch Bonnington’s Irish Moss cough syrup.

So we can certainly say there was active patent medicine industry in New Zealand and the Australian colonies, with products being imported and sold within the various Australian and New Zealand colonies.

Equally products were imported from the UK, and advertised locally, often reusing the same advertising material as used domestically in the UK, sometimes amended to say things such as ‘available from all good chemists throughout Australia, New Zealand and the Cape colony’.

So why did the British manufacturers compete against local manufacturers?

I suspect that the answer is in part steamships – the development of shipping in the last three decades of the nineteenth century brought down the cost and difficulty of shipping goods from the UK, making it economic to compete with local brands.

Also, there was constant stream of migration from the UK and Ireland to Australia New Zealand and the Cape Colony, and these new migrants probably sought out products they knew and trusted.

We see something similar today where larger Woolworths and Coles supermarkets have a shelf or two of UK products such as Jaffa cakes, Penguins and (English) marmite.

In the nineteenth century, when few people could afford (or indeed trusted) doctors patent medicines, many of which were based on traditional herbal cures, perhaps with a dash of laudunum, or a generous alcohol base, had a major role in allowing people to manage run of the mill coughs, colds, chest infections and digestive problems.

And in an age when many things were unregulated, brand recognition was important, especially when your health, or the health of your children was involved. And I suspect that this helped sustain the trade in imported medicines – people stuck to brands they trusted and recognised …

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
This entry was posted in Dow's project, Historical, Uncategorized, Victorian. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Patent medicines and nineteenth century globalisation

  1. Pingback: So I thought I’d do a MOOC … | stuff 'n other stuff

  2. Pingback: Mortality in late Victorian Scotland | stuff 'n other stuff

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