Curing the world's ills – or overpriced quackery?Was Joseph George Wilkins an early self-appointed consumer watchdog?
His publication Rub It In: ‘Secrets’ of Well-Known Cures, registered for copyright in 1916 and now part of the National Archives collection, exposed overpricing and spurious claims by manufacturers of so-called trademark or patent medicines.
Using analysis done by the British and American medical journals and other authorities, Wilkins showed that manufacturers sold their products at hugely inflated prices – in one case over 400 times the cost of the ingredients!
Manufacturers claimed their products could cure an extraordinary range of ailments. One of the most famous, Beecham’s Pills, made up of aloes, ginger and soap, was said to be ‘an unfailing remedy’ for no less than 23 different complaints. These included ‘bad legs’, scurvy and constipation. It was good for both want of appetite and fullness after meals.
Sir Joseph Beecham’s slogan was ‘Worth a guinea a box’. The estimated cost of producing a box of 56 pills was about one-sixth of a penny. It sold for 80 times as much. Was it any wonder that the manufacturer’s son, the famous British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, could devote his life to music without fear of economic constraints?
Despite reservations expressed about their curative values, many of the products and labels invented in the nineteenth century enjoyed a long life. The manufacture of Beecham’s Pills ended in 1998 after more than 150 years. Eno’s Fruit Salts, first sold in the 1850s, are still available today, as are Cuticura products.