Cocaine, Chinese doctors and Quakers: What we can learn from advertising.

Mmmm. Cocoa. Image: Pixabay

Mmmm. Cocoa.
Image: Pixabay

What do you do for fun?

Slip into your smoking jacket, kick off your slingbacks, and have a Banana Daiquiri or two? Dance the night – early morning, mid-morning – away at the local discotheque, wearing your favoured pink body glitter and little else? Go for an invigorating bike ride along the canal path, picking blackberries and fishing for shopping trolleys?

Know what I did over the weekend?

I strolled through the backstreets of old London town…

Dodging the costers with their carts and steaming horse apples*, I marvelled at the shipbreaker’s yard, complete with its reclaimed figureheads, bristling with peeling masts, wheels and helms. I wandered around the East End, past the pawnbrokers, Sieberts the German bakers, the children’s homes and alms-houses. I became lost in the dingy warren of winding alleys and side streets around the Thames, and under the tunnel of rickety walkways, web like connections between the biggest warehouses in the city.

And I did it all without leaving my sofa.

I was reading Images of Lost London 1875 – 1945 by Philip Davies, photographs of a capital now lost to slum clearance, bombing and thoughtless post-war redevelopment.

The book reminded me of how much I love old photographs, especially ones from the nineteenth-century when the practice was still a novelty (you find huddles of people just standing and watching the cameraman) and exposure times were long (there’s many a ghostly image of people caught walking through the shot).

The pictures I pored over longest were those of corner and grocer shops, with windows crammed with boxes and advertising and it’s only when you see images like this you realise how long some of our familiar, store cupboard brands have been around.

So, today’s Wednesday Word Tangle is dedicated to


Some are wonderfully familiar, but pretty unimaginative in conception:

Tate and Lyle, Brown and Poulson, Bird’s, Colman’s, R. White’s – all named after their inventors and company founders.

That goes for my favourite of ongoing brands, the chocolate companies Fry’s, Cadbury and Rowntrees, all originally founded by Quakers as a way to lure the working classes away from their then favourite treat – gin.

Cleaning product manufacturers showed a little more flair, with Sunlight soap, Fairy, Lifebuoy and Flash all suggesting light, bright, airy, speedy cleaning with every purchase.

The more you trawl the archives, you more you realise nineteenth and early twentieth century advertisers certainly did things differently.

There seemed to be a lot of ‘safety’ items on the market (mangles, razors) which suggests that being trapped, killed or maimed by your new buy was ever an option – unless you made the effort to buy something with the word ‘safety’ at the start.

Other products now unfamiliar to the modern consumer are medicated soaps (today most of us just requiring soaps to clean, not cure as well), ‘extract of meat and malt wine’ (I’m not sure what that was exactly, but I’m not volunteering to do a taste test), aerated flours (when I was a kid, we used the phrase ‘aerated’ to describe someone being upset – ‘when her fella dumped her she got all aerated’. I’m sure you can’t make flour cry, though).

And then, of course the classic ‘cocaine tooth drops’, with its delightful advertisement of two young children building a toy house from twigs – feverishly, one would imagine.

My favourite brand names, though, are the words the makers invented:

Bovril, the beef flavoured hot drink is derived from the Latin for ox (bos), and from the novel The Coming Race by Bulwer-Lytton, the -vril suffix being an electro-magnetic substance supporting a superior race of people.

Bisto, gravy browning, so named because it ‘Browns, Seasons and Thickens in One.’ (No, it doesn’t quite work for me, either.)

Marmite, love or hate the yeast spread, it’s named after a style of earthenware pot the product was originally sold in, a picture of which still appears on the jar.

Typhoo tea (originally Typhoo Tipps) is based on the corruption of a Chinese word for doctor, the brew supposedly being good for indigestion.

Hovis. In 1890 S. Fitton & Sons Ltd ran a national competition to find a name for their new flour blend which was rich in wheat germ. The wonderfully named Herbert Grime won, abbreviating the Latin term hominis vis (‘the strength of man’) to Hovis.

So, what have we learned? If you want a brand to last over one hundred years, either name the company after yourself or invent something snappy.

Oh, then wait a few decades and sell it to foreign investors.

*A charming euphemism for dung, my dear.

Thanks as always to Kat for the first W4W

9 thoughts on “Cocaine, Chinese doctors and Quakers: What we can learn from advertising.

  1. Another great post.

    And you can add Terry’s to your list of Quaker chocolate firms (are they part of a private equity firm now too?) that dominated the market, though their reach may not have extended to London before 1945. The ‘meat and malt’ concoction may have a similar process to that for Marmite which, I think, has its origins in the sludge scraped off vats in breweries. But don’t quote me on that!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you 🙂 Last time I looked at a Chocolate Orange it was produced by Kraft – the company who bought out Cadbury (in a hostile takeover, of course) I believe they’re now Mondelez which is under the Kraft umbrella, as it were. Few Brit owned chocolate company’s left, I’m afraid. I have a particular niggle against Kraft because when they bought Cadbury they said they’d keep manufacturing here in Bristol … and of course closed the factory at Keynsham shortly after. Loathe them for bringing so many years of manufacturing heritage to a close.
      Of course – Terrys of York. How did I forget them? I have a lot of time for those Quaker reformers – despite their loathing of alcohol. They cared for their workers at a time before the welfare state, when workers had few rights and generally lived precarious lives in terrible conditions. Those Quaker business men made sure their people were housed and fed properly – although I suspect there was a lot of compulsory worship along the way. Great pacifists too, of course. Major religions of the world take note!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Must find out more about Quakers’ business enterprises in the past (though I wonder, especially with chocolate, how much they were founded on slavery overseas). And wasn’t the Wills family of Quaker disposition?

        Agree about Cadbury’s shameful treatment of Fry’s — my brother-in-law worked for them in Keynsham, though I’ve no idea what he’s doing now, lost touch with my siblings — hard to feel brand loyalty to giant firms who disregard their social responsibilities.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Were the Wills family Quakers? I had no idea. As you can imagine, with them having their tobacco factories here in Bristol, their names are everywhere. Especially where we are – Bedminster was the home of a couple of their factories which now house shops, restaurants and a wonderful theatre since the collapse of the industry. Tobacco’s not a great legacy for Quakers, is it? Though, of course ,they weren’t to know how harmful it’s proved to be.
        Good point about the slave trade -I can’t imagine them being able to produce chocolate and tobacco at the time without slavery, but it’s something the Friends were very much against.
        Further reading is needed!
        And yes, Boo! to Kraft or whatever they’re calling themselves now – never trust big business.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Alright, I’ve found after a little bit of research that I was mistaken about the Wills family, who — while being philanthropic about their workers and involvement in funding Bristol Uni — had in fact a non-conformist Congregationalist background.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Ah, right. I’m less certain about what Congregationalists believe – more research needed on my part 🙂
        I’ve been told they used to pay the workers (largely young women) partly in cigarettes, which now seems a rather cynical way to get your workforce hooked on your product, thus giving you extra sales!
        One of the Wills also paid for the City Museum, one of my favourite places in the entire city. I love it so much, I’ve based a book largely around it. Ah, many happy hours have been spent there, looking round their stuffed animal gallery, all housed in proper wooden and glass cases and flanked by a piano / pianola collection (for some reason!)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, one of my favourite places as a teenager; and they used to have Alfred the gorilla in a case there though I haven’t seen him in recent years: probably in storage now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Alfred was still there last time I went round that gallery though my son has now put a block on City Museum visits so I haven’ been for a while. I just took him too often when he was small, I’m afraid. A top Bristolian attraction for me 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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