Monday, March 18, 2013

Patent Medicine Almanacs, a window into the past

The 19th century began in an era of local commerce.  Most everything you purchased came from your farm or from local manufacturers.  But the century ended as an era of national commerce, where well recognized "brand names" were sold coast to coast.

This happened for several reasons.  First of all, in 1800 America did not extend from coast to coast.  By 1900 it did, and with the entire nation linked together by an efficient rail system.  Of course there was also that Industrial Revolution thing going on that encouraged large scale manufacturing.  But another factor was the birth of mass advertising.  In 1800 you might nail up a broadside poster on the village green.  In 1900 you could buy advertising in newspapers across the nation.

One industry which really led the way in this regard was the patent medicine business.  These products-often extravagantly named hootch-were among the first to be marketed on a nation wide scale.

A typical advertising gimmick for these companies was the annual almanac.  These were given out free each year, with a handy little hook or loop to hang them up in a convenient spot.  They actually had a lot of useful information in them; calenders, horoscopes, crop planting advice, first aid measures.  Of course these were liberally sprinkled with testimonials, cartoons, and flat out advertisements for the sundry elixers, bitters, cures and syrups made by the company.

I have a few of these sitting around.  They can be purchased on the cheap, and provide some interesting glimpses of life in the 19th (and very early 20th) century.

Our great grandparents enjoyed puns just as we do.  Seven Barks was a concoction of various vegetable stuff, I suspect Peruvian Bark-the source of quinine for malaria treatment-was the original inspiration.

A slightly later almanac, one that seems to appeal to motherhood.  At least it looks to me as if she is cradling those bottles as if they were her beloved children.  Ironic, as this is almost the exact point in history when the patent medicine industry was under fire for including narcotics and alcohol in medicines for children, with frequently tragic results.
Although many almanacs tried to invoke some long ago golden age, others tried to look new and modern.  I imagine that most folks getting their Green's August Flower almanac in late 1904 had never seen a real automobile.  Two observations.  Note the stamped on name of the drug store which gave out this almanac.  Each store had its own stamp, with the larger firms getting a special page printed on the back.  Also notice that the frightened little dog is about to be run over, as nobody is watching the road at all.  This seems rather dark.

Patent medicine almanacs sometimes made tangential reference to current events.  This Hamlin's Wizard Oil songbook is about the right time period to allude to Jumbo the famous elephant owned by P.T. Barnum.  Jumbo was hit by a train in 1885.

This does not strike an immediate bell with us in 2013, but in 1893 it was of course recognized as referencing the upcoming Columbian Exhibition in Chicago.  Note the hanging loop in the upper left corner, and the printed name of the wholesale drug company on the left margain.

In the 19th century America had a very large foreign born population.  It was the era of mass immigration from Europe.  The patent medicine companies were very quick to tap into this market, and produced almanacs specially for them.  This is the Swedish version of the Ayers almanac.  In addition to translating it into Swedish, they printed a special cover.  Note the thematic similarities to the Swedish national seal:

You can glimpse all sorts of little details of 19th century life in the pages of these almanacs.  Good advertisers know their customers, and from the ad pitches we can know them as well.  We can see what made them laugh (a subject of an upcoming, rather uncomfortable posting).  We can see what clothes they wore, or at least what an idealized version of the population wore.  In the heartfelt, and often genuine, testimonials we can feel the fear of a parent with a sick child, or the hypochondriac beset on all sides with perils.

But sometimes the pages of the almanacs yield only mystery.  Here is a page from a Swedish language almanac.
Clearly it is in the song book sub genre.  And the song is the classic childrens ditty B-I-N-G-O.  It appears to include as well some directions for a dance routine.  But what on earth is the school marm with the riot baton doing in the middle of things!

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