Feel better, 1939 style.

Detail of an advert showing a woman grimacing accompanied by the words ‘neauraglic pains.’
Detail of a 1939 ad for ‘Phensic No-Pain’ tablets (Aspirin)

eyond the infamous Craven A ‘for your throat’s sake, smoke!’ adverts, the late 1930s had plenty of other products aimed at keeping the body in tip-top shape. I’m fortunate to have a huge collection of issues of the British photojournalistic magazine — Picture Post — which published some fascinating features and reports during its 1938–1957 run, especially in the run up to the Second World War. There is a particular strain of tragic foreshadowing in the magazine’s coverage of the rise of Nazi Germany, especially given the magasine’s strong anti-fascist stance. These deserve more considered attention, but for now, let’s focus on the second most-fascinating part of the magasine: the adverts that were printed inside of it. Health and beauty occupied a major proportion of the magasine’s advertising space — but what sort of revitalising products and services were readers being bombarded with in 1939?

Tonic Wine

Given that the most destructive conflict in the history of mankind was looming, the British public of 1939 had every right to be nervy. So it’s a good job that virtually every product claimed to cure elusive nerve disorders and restore one’s ‘vim and vigour’. ‘Weak nerves’ were seen as one of the key underlying causes of many common physical and psychological ailments. This allowed remedies to be marketed as a cure for an impossibly wide range of problems, because they addressed this universal root cause. ‘Tonics’ — mixtures of herbs and salts that made everything feel better — had always been popular, especially when mixed with wine.

Advert for tonic wine, with a woman’s smiling face and the tagline ‘Say goodbye to depression!”
Advert for tonic wine, with a woman’s smiling face and the tagline ‘Say goodbye to depression!”
To be honest, this ad would have worked on me.

‘Nerve Tonics’ aimed at combatting ‘general weaknesses’ were big business, and what they actually consisted of came under the scrutiny of the British Medical Journal in 1911, in an article entitled The Composition of Certain Secret Remedies. First, the article also provides us with more claims that the literature and packaging of such tonics make. Phospherine tonic was a ‘proven remedy’ for, amongst other ailments, ‘nervous debility, influenza, exhaustion, mental exhaustion, premature decay, hysteria’, and ‘other disorders consequent upon a reduced state of the nervous system’ — which seemed to include basically everything.

The article doesn’t really criticise the tonics — it merely lists what thet found them to be compsoed of — something that was curiously left off the promotional material. Phospherine tonic, they found, was a mixture of diluted phosphoric acid, alcohol, and quinine (which is also commonly used as an anti-malarial medicine).Quinine is also what gives modern ‘tonic’ water its bitter taste. The article does note that the ingredients cost just half a penny for one small bottle of tonic retailing for two shillings and nine pence (meaning ingredients cost about 1.5% of the retail price)- which may explain why they were so secretive with the ingredients.

This type of phospherine tonic combined with fortified wine created a 15% ABV beverage that’s main active ingredient was, well, alcohol. Tonic wine has survived in British culture, but not in a way that 1930s advertisers would have approved of. Buckfast tonic wine was initially produced by the monks of Buckfast Abbey, and was originally marketed as medicinal under the tagline ‘three small glasses a day for good health and lively blood.’ However, the wine has developed a less wholesome reputation, especially in Scotland were it is sometimes known as ‘commotion lotion.’ I can confirm, based on some exceptionally blurry memories of Glasgow at 2am, that it deserves that nickname. I’m not really sure what else anyone was expecting from a drink that is essentially cheap red wine mixed with instant coffee.

Health Rays

Printed advert marketing a ‘Health Ray’
Printed advert marketing a ‘Health Ray’
Look at the man’s hand — I think he’s actually holding a cigarette in this advert for a ‘health ray.’

If — for whatever reason — a generous glass or two of tonic wine didn't fix every ailment known to science, one could turn to the health ray. Like most treatments, health rays (ultraviolet and/or infrared lamps) were marketed as being a cure for pretty much everything, as well as a means of getting a sun-tan.

By the 1930s, sunlight was seen as beneficial for health, especially as it had been used to treat two notorious diseases of the time — tuberculosis and rickets. This wasn't unfounded (sunlight is a source of vitamin D , the deficiency of which caused rickets), and led to a more generalised association between sunlight and health (notably advocated by John Kellogg, the cereal guy).

This also altered the cultural language of the sun-tan, which — as this advert suggests — became seen as an attractive, desirable sign of health (prior to this, sun tans were unfavourably associated with outdoor labour, and so being pale was seen as a sign of wealth).

The risk of skin cancer from prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light wasn't widely recognised until later in the century, and so health rays were a popular treatment option because, at the very least, you just got a nice tan. The price of this unit, 60 shillings (or £3) — about £120 ($155) today — was also far cheaper than it would have been to travel to somewhere with consistent natural winter sunlight. Testimonies collected by the Museum of Technology suggest such lamp-based products were smoky, noisy, and produced a memorable smell — but also indicate they were regularly used as a treatment on children to counter all sorts of ailments well beyond the 1930s.

Nose Jobs

Advert showing a row of different nose shapes with the tagline ‘Why not a Classical nose?”
There is deliberately no mention of doctors or medicine in this advert of cosmetic surgery…

Despite the fact that cosmetic surgery is widely practiced today, there are two big differences between today’s procedures and the service advertised above — one obvious, one hidden. Firstly, the opening rationale that a ‘finely shaped nose suggests culture and high breeding’ is an unsettling reminder of the sort of eugenics and scientific racism that was openly and casually espoused, especially prior to the atrocities of the Nazi regime.

The second difference, which I eventually discovered thanks to this brilliant article, was that the service being advertised here was performed in the absence of the both anaesthetic and a licensed doctor. The ‘Hystogen Institute’ was founded by a man called Charles Henry Willi, who made a fortune performing facial cosmetic procedures by exploiting a loophole in British law. Under the Medical Act of 1858, anyone could perform plastic surgery as long as they did not deceive people into thinking they were licensed surgeons, and that’s exactly what Mr (not Dr) Willi did. One of the many drawbacks of this was that procedures had to be done without general anaesthetic because an anaesthetist who chose to support such a spurious brand of surgery would likely be deregistered. This didn’t prevent him operating on over 15,000 people, and developing cutting-edge (no pun intended) techniques. He didn’t hide behind these adverts either — he was proud of his practice and even let British Pathé film him at work.

Stomach Problems

Montage of details from 1930s adverts referring to constipation and the stomach.
Montage of details from 1930s adverts referring to constipation and the stomach.
There were so many I had to make a montage…

If advertising was anything to go by, the late 1930s were the most constipated time in human history. Solutions to digestive problems are by far the most common topic of health advertising in the pages of Picture Posts’ 1939 issues, many taking the form of ‘explanations’ of stomach problems and by extension, why their product was the solution. Amongst the most well known brands were Andrews Liver Salt and Carter Little Liver Pills. These products, and most of their competitors, were actually laxatives or antacids such as milk of magnesia, and incorporated many of the same active ingredients as their modern counterparts.

So, it wasn’t as if these products were useless or dangerous — but why were they so prominent? Well, people were very scared of constipation and stomach problems. There was a notion, still very much in the public psyche in the 1930s, that the presence of waste products in the body was inhernetly harmful, leading to ‘autointoxication.’ Thus, constipation was cited as the root cause for many of the other ailments targeted by advertising (including, you guessed it, weak nerves), and hence it was imperative that people were ‘regular’ and had ‘inner cleanliness’. All-Bran cereal, again a brainchild of John Kellogg, was designed to increase the ‘bulk’ in one’s food, the lack of which was cited as the doctor-confirmed cause of constipation.

Constipation was a sweet spot for remedy marketing. Almost everyone experienced it at some point, and fears about its consequences were still prominent — especially because in most cases those that experienced it would struggle to have it diagnosed as the product of a specific ailment. Over-the-counter treatments for stomach issues are still very well represented in advertising, because despite Kellogg’s best efforts, we’re still not getting enough ‘bulk’ in our diets….

What really stands out in these adverts is the confidence these companies had in their products. Tonic wine will put new strength in you. The health ray will provide robust health and fitness for all. Any nose can be fixed. This will cure constipation. That’s because, in Britain, there was no legal regulation over adverts or the veracity of claims they made until the advent of television commercials in 1955. You could market a tonic wine as a cure for everything and keep the recipe a secret. It’s not so much the products themselves, but the unapologetic brazenness of the claims that make these adverts so intriguing — can you imagine if adverts for today’s products could make any claim they liked? We’d be sold a world in which everything was possible.

One part experience, nine parts curiosity: history, iOS development, design, and whatever else ends up floating my boat.

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