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