By Joseph Bishop, Princeton University and Library‘s 2022 Audrey and William H. Helfand Scholar
Dr. Bishop completed his Fellowship residency in the summer of 2022 and will present his research via Zoom on Nov. 8 at 4 p.m. EST. To attend his conference, “Pharmaceutical Visions: How US Drug Companies and Ad Agencies Revamped Their Credibility by Marketing with Scientific Imagery”, register via the Academy website Events page.
This spring, I spent weeks immersed in the vast historical records available at the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) library. I was honored to receive the Audrey and William H. Helfand Fellowship to pursue a project that I believe would have interested Bill Helfand: an examination of changes in medical advertising at the turn of the 20th century. Over the course of his life, Helfand amassed a vast collection of fascinating memorabilia relating to drugs and medicine and visual art. Much of his collection and work illuminates the dynamic between drug manufacturers and the public in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Significant parts of Helfand’s collection are available at NYAM, and I have taken advantage of the richness of color and wide range patent medicine trade card collection. NYAM also has mountains of pharmaceutical, medical, and related journals and magazines brimming with pharmaceutical advertisements.
At the turn of the 20th century, the American public saw the rise of big pharmaceutical corporations, national and corporate advertising, and federal drug regulation. An important question is what has caused the transformations in medical visual culture that have helped to present pharmaceutical companies as scientific and research-oriented. To answer this question, I compare late 19th century patent drug trade cards with medical advertisements in ladies‘ welcome diary in the 1920s. This comparison reveals a transition from entertainment and fantasy to a concern for scientific progress and medical authority. My research at NYAM led me to conclude that pharmaceutical companies and advertising agencies have focused on scientific and medical imagery to revamp their medical credibility and professional image amid national drug regulation and public anger over the industry’s past association with patent medicine.
America’s patent medicine companies came under intense scrutiny for producing remedies of cryptic content and questionable efficacy during the first decade of the 20th century. They depended on local publicity images that reflected the anxieties and aspirations of 19th century audiences. Popular science stories have been created for a variety of reasons—from entertainment to informing citizens—but they have all served to increase scientific and medical awareness among the American public. Accounts from the Philadelphia-based advertising agency NW Ayer show that patent medicine was their most lucrative product category, making 26% of their total revenue in 1878, and their second most lucrative product in 1900, with 15% . In 1879, more than 400 religious weeklies in the United States each needed a steady stream of advertising revenue to stay in business. Newspapers generated patent drug business and medical advertisements supported newspapers. Nostrum manufacturers developed new marketing techniques, created new distribution systems, launched branded products, became an economic link between urban and rural centers and expanded markets.
Americans living in the last two decades of the 19th century saw an explosion of advertising trade cards. Retailers offered these pocket cards, often stuffed into product packaging as a bonus and easily collectable by customers. Patent drug companies have widely used these cards, as they have proven to be a very effective means of selling. Many people collected cards into scrapbooks and created scrapbooks, which children sometimes received as birthday or Christmas gifts.
Trade cards such as Ayer’s Ague Cure (Image 1) evoke an aura of connection with nature and adaptation to the surrounding environment. The image in the lower right corner shows an alligator and some frogs discussing Ayer’s Cure as if they were using it to ward off malaria. The ad implies that Ayer’s product helps it adapt to its environment just as alligators and frogs adapt to theirs.
On the other hand, the Cas-car-ria trade card (picture 2) depicts a young girl holding a switch and a dog together, fending off miniature evil-scarred demons. Cas-car-ria’s advertising evokes notions of animal protection and self-protection, implying that when patients take Cas-car-ria, they harness the animal within, unleashing the strength needed to fight the external demons.
The explosion of advertisements promoting pharmaceutical specialties and their incessant hyperbole and untruths finally provoked strong public reactions which demanded transparency and regulation. There were always calls to curb quackery, but the flood of promotion led to the regulation of patent medicine becoming a public priority.
Exam Ladies’ Home Journal during the 1920s illustrates these changes in advertising. At this point, advertisements offered a different portrayal of scientific medicine and appealed to an audience that was more docile to medical professionals. A Squibb pharmaceutical advertisement depicts a well-organized medicine cabinet (Image 3). The caption asks, “What’s in your medicine cabinet?” Are these products that your doctor would approve of? This request for approval from medical authority is part of the new values of trust in the informed judgment of scientific and medical authority.
Ads for Zonite (Image 4) featured images of scientists wearing lab coats and examining test tubes, drawing a scientific aura into its products. Zonite also associated its product with scientific discoveries, such as Carrel-Dakin fluid (i.e. diluted bleach), an essential antiseptic used during World War I.
The ad for “Yeast Foam” (image 5) also appeals to scientific and medical authority, depicting a man wearing a medical gown looking through a microscope. In the foreground are two circular illustrations of microscopic specimens, one containing germs and the other free of germs. The ad depicts a professional man immersed in scientific work, suggesting that the product has been carefully checked by scientific review for quality assurance.
Similarly, the Fleischmann advertisement (image 6) depicts two men in lab coats working at a table equipped with flasks, a beaker, a microscope and other scientific instruments. The caption below the image reads: “Surprisingly important messages from the scientist’s lab.” The text of the advertisement indicates how Fleischmann’s yeast cures various diseases. In the case of skin diseases, the ad relies on a general sense of medical authority: “Many doctors and hospitals prescribe Fleischmann’s yeast for skin impurities. It gave remarkable results.
The values of corporate advertising agencies after the era of patent medicine are not just a reaction to muckraking journalism and reform movements. The use of scientific medical imagery to convey authority and professional judgment was also largely aimed at revamping the medical credibility of American pharmaceutical companies and corporate advertising agencies; they profited greatly in the era of patent medicine, but then had to reduce their ties to these fraudulent products. Advertising agencies traced the anxieties and aspirations of the American public as they moved from a loose fantasy about panaceas in the late 19th century to a reverence for qualified scientific and medical experts and institutions in the early 20th century. . By tracing this transition in medical imaging, we can understand how pharmaceutical companies and advertising agencies fashioned products to increase their professional influence.