Sunday, September 27, 2020

"The Magical Art of Selling Soap"

From Lapham's Quarterly:

The trends and tactics of the nineteenth-century wellness industry
In his sweeping 1929 history of advertising from ancient Babylonia on, industry pioneer Frank Presbery waxed poetic about advertising as a progressive, rationalizing force. Properly deployed, advertising would not only evenly distribute earthly goods to the masses but would make knowledge universally available as well. “If everybody had all the knowledge that exists and is available, and applied it, there would be very little unhappiness,” Presbery concludes sunnily.

But American advertising—and cosmetic advertising in particular—traces its origins to the decidedly less-than-rational hodgepodge of science, magic, and faith that formed the culture of medicine and “wellness” in the late nineteenth century. The first efforts at national advertising were launched by patent-medicine manufacturers, whose elixirs, pills, drops, and ointments promised customers miraculous physical and mental transformations. For all of its purported down-to-earth rationality, the advertising industry had deep roots in magical thinking. This was a past it would never completely leave behind: that was, in fact, integral to its cultural success.

“Patent” medicines—so-called because in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England, one had to acquire a government license to peddle them—had a guaranteed place on every apothecary’s shelf in colonial America. Such English imports as Daffy’s Elixir, Dr. Bateman’s Pectoral Drops, and a specially patented “Oyl extracted from a Flinty Rock for the Cure of Rheumatick and Scorbutick and other Cases” were stocked side by side with the druggist’s more standard materia medica.
Nineteenth-century medicine lagged notably behind other scientific fields, with the average doctor’s practical knowledge barely advanced beyond the medical wisdom of the second-century Greek physician Galen. The average physician’s principal weapon for fighting illness—induced vomiting/diarrhea and copious bleeding of patients with lancets and leeches—remained of dubious aid. Those desperate to see themselves and their loved ones well were naturally tempted by alternative remedies.

Before the scientific revolution, science and magic—including the science of healing—were separated by only the finest of lines. Medicine men were stock characters at carnivals, markets, and fairs, peddling their cures alongside palm readers, acrobats, magicians, and animal trainers. Indeed, the pairing of “showmanship and dental surgery” was a bizarrely popular genre, spawning a number of dentist-puppeteers and dentist-acrobats who, presumably, found that, in the absence of anesthesia, their surgery went more smoothly when performed on distracted patients. They and their heirs attracted an audience as much for their entertainment value as for their medical adventuring.
In this vein, nineteenth-century American patent-medicine manufacturers mounted elaborate “Medicine Shows,” sent out to travel the highways and byways of the country. The Wizard Oil Company, founded by magician John Hamlin, is illustrative of the genre, whose popularity peaked in the 1870s and ’80s. The Chicago-based company combined a canny modern distribution model with the ancient lure of spectacle: Hamlin sent out fleets of horse-drawn wagons, with colorful ads for Wizard Oil and equipped with a stage and parlor organ. The performers not only conducted open-air entertainments and point-of-service sales but stocked village pharmacies throughout the Midwest with bottles of Wizard liver pills, cough remedy, and liniment oil.

Despite the appeal of these theatrical extravaganzas, American patent-medicine manufacturers got their greatest boost from the rapid spread of literacy and print media in the nineteenth century. In 1800 the United States counted twenty daily newspapers; by 1860 that number had shot to four hundred, thanks in part to steam-powered presses and cheaper paper.

Patent-medicine companies were among the earliest and most cash-flush investors in the new advertising medium. True to form, patent-medicine print advertisements were flamboyant and theatrical. “There is no Sore it will Not Heal, No Pain it will not Subdue,” promised one newspaper advertisement for Hamlin’s Wizard Oil. “The Great Medical Wonder…Magical in its Effects,” the company assured health-conscious consumers. “The bones are sold with the beef,” sighed one small-town editor when readers objected to the quantity of advertising in the paper. He knew that without ad revenue, the paper would require a paid circulation of two thousand, rather than its current two hundred, to survive....

I'll say this for the old-time patent medicine hucksters, nasty as they were they didn't subject folks to stories like this:
For Goop team, smelling Gwyneth Paltrow's vagina was just another day at the office  

We'll have more—soap, not Gwyneth—next week.