The Dr. Miles Medical Company in Elkhart, Indiana, made a fortune selling the Dr. Miles’ Nervine, a patent medicine that calmed the nerves. Like most patent medicine companies, Dr. Miles marketed its medicines through pamphlets and almanacs. And like most patent medicines, Dr. Miles’ Nervine seemed to cure any ailment and to improve your general well being. Every pamphlet was filled with testimonial from reputable and satisfied patient-customers (we should probably hear echoes of this technique in today’s DTC pharmaceutical campaigns). Dr. Miles occupies an interesting place in the history of patent medicines. Unlike other companies that died out with the patent medicine craze, Dr. Miles stumbled onto a compound that we still use today: Alka-Selzer.
In the early 1930s Dr. Miles published a pamphlet celebrating its new discovery: Modern Science Discovers a Common Sense Way to Relieve Everyday Aches and Pains.
A postcard glued into this pamphlet suggests that it dates from June 1932, not long after a chemist at the company had developed the product. Gone are the references to astrology so common in patent medicine marketing—about this same time Dr. Miles had published a similar pamphlet that was built around astrology: Character Readings According to the Solar Zodiac (see this post). Dr. Miles’s latest pamphlet focuses instead on the science, the scientists, and the scientific apparatus: flasks and jars, microscope, distillation apparatus, clean-cut, staid men in white lab coats.
In 1932 Alka-Seltzer took its place alongside Dr. Miles’ many other patent medicines: Nervine, Nervine Tablets, Anti-Pain pills, a tonic, an “Alterative Compound,” a Cactus Compound, Little Pills, Laxative Tablets, and Aspir-Mint.
Today Alka-Seltzer as well as the former Dr. Miles company are owned by Bayer Schering Pharma, perhaps best known for its aspirin (Bayer also gave us Heroin, which it originally marketed as a cough medicine).
I know nothing about Ciba Pharmaceutical Products and had never heard of the company until I found this pamphlet in a box of old books.
Apparently, Ciba Pharmaceuticals produced pamphlets on various topics related to pharmaceuticals and chemistry. This one contains a number of articles by William Jerome Wilson, who contributed to a number of Ciba Symposia on alchemy—one on Chinese alchemy in 1940 and one on the mystical developments in alchemy in 1942.
These pamphlets were clearly a vehicle for marketing Ciba’s pharmaceutical products. This pamphlet includes three large ads for different medicines: the stimulant Coramine, the steroids Metandren and Perandren, and the antispasmodic Trasentin.
I can’t help but appreciate the detail and care of the ads in this pamphlet. Everything from the typography to the stylized images conveys both authority, efficacy, and modernity. I am, therefore, intrigued by Ciba’s use of alchemy here as a means of marketing its pharmaceuticals. This wasn’t the first or the last time a Ciba Symposia focused on alchemy. What made alchemy useful in this context?
Anybody interested in pursuing these questions should start at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Not only do they appear to have a number of other Ciba pamphlets, as this search indicates, they have other Ciba materials and, no doubt, boxes and boxes of other mid-century pharmaceutical literature.
An article in the NY Times reports on a recent research about Direct-to-Consumer drug marketing. The article draws attention to authority and power of a “survey” in convincing consumers to self-diagnos and to request particular drugs.
All this sounds a lot like the techniques used a century ago to market patent medicines. At that time Muckraking journalism helped expose an industry that was probably not helping anybody and might actually be harming many consumers.
In Markting Drugs Then and Now I draw out some of the many similarities between the two eras. There are a number of related posts on patent medicines linked to from that post.