Christmas and the Chemist: The Pretty Thermometer and other marketing ploys from the nineteenth century

“Gentlemen – I have the honour to wish you a scientific Christmas and a drug-devouring New Year”
– Fred Reynolds, co-founder of the British Pharmaceutical Conference[i]

The concept of Christmas adverts feels very twenty-first century, particularly with the rise of emotionally intense adverts that use neuroscience to research how to effectively communicate with the consumer’s subconscious. Today it feels the real meaning of Christmas has lost out to excessive consumerist consumption, but the Victorian  ‘nation of shopkeepers’ also used Christmas for commercial gain. The rise of consumer capitalism has been addressed by Brewer and Porter with the identification, from the 1850s onwards, of the growth of advertising, department stores, international exhibitions, consumer psychology and industrial design.[ii] There was a marked transformation in shopping in the Victorian era and it is possible to identify modern advertising techniques.

This wider marketplace is of great significance to the medical marketplace, particularly as the emergence of the chemist and druggist was part of the commercialisation of society. The world of medicine was a commercial venture and there is evidence found in the trade periodical The Chemist and Druggist that the pharmaceutical trade started to utilise the Christmas season for their own commercial gains. It was reported in the periodical by a critic that “Christmas always gives the chemist an opportunity to disguise the real nature of his mission, and bring himself in line with the festive spirit of the occasion.”[iii]

The late 1880s seemed to be a turning point for appropriating the Christmas season for commercial gains – with more references in The Chemist and Druggist to ‘Christmas prices,’ ‘Christmas Decoration,’ and ‘Suitable Christmas Presents.’ As ever, Burroughs Wellcome & Co were at the forefront of marketing, and promoted their products at “special Christmas prices,” or specifically as Christmas presents.

Figure 1 – Burroughs, Wellcome & Co Christmas advertisement[iv]

In the late 1880s Burroughs, Wellcome & Co produced a Medical Pocket Diary, which formed ‘a very suitable Christmas card for chemists to send to their medical patrons.’[v]  Their ‘ABC Medical Diary’ was similarly marketed as a gift for the medical profession.[vi]

Fig 2 Burroughs, Wellcome ABC Medical Diary advertisement [vi]

The Christmas novelty can be found in the periodicals’ advertisements throughout the late nineteenth century but predominately for toiletries, perfume, or ‘scientific’ devices. Below are some adverts placed by manufacturers making explicit reference to the festive season as a means to promote their products to the retail trade:


Figure 3 –  Perfumes were popular products sold in chemists’ shops.
“Chemists will find PETAL DUST the best selling line for the Christmas Season”



Figure 4 – A Beecham’s advert that includes a New Year’s puzzle and festive poem[vii]



Figure 5 – Blondeau et Cie used Christmas to promote their Vinolia products.
Retail chemists’ shops were encouraged to buy a specific amount in order to receive a “Christmas Gift” [viii]

Taking advantage of the Christmas season was not just a commercial opportunity for large manufacturing chemists. Smaller local chemists were also able to cash in.The Chemist and Druggist reported in December of 1896[ix] that:

“At this season of the year chemists are not behind their neighbours in attracting customers”:-

And listed a whole range of chemists marketing ploys:

Mr Herbert W. Seely, Southgate, Halifax, is presenting his customers with a pretty thermometer.

Mr F.G.da Faye, chemist and mineral-water maker David Place, Jersey, is distributing letter-racks gratis to his customers and giving one to every applicant.

The “Christmas Welcome” presented by Messrs. Fukker & Co., chemists, Norwich, is an original conception containing poetry, tales, conundrums, and other seasonable reading, interspersed with advertisements. It is a good idea well carried out. 

Messrs. F.H Prosser & Co, pharmaceutical chemists Spring Hill, Birmingham, publish an almanac and price-list which extends to 184 pages plus insets. There are notes on domestic medicine, and, most wonderful of all, advertisements of a dozen local chemists.

Mr. J. L. P. Hollingworth, chemist and druggist, 21 New Street, Barnsley, and Cudworth, announces that to every person spending Is. and upwards at his establishment he will present a sixpenny Christmas Annual.

The Edme Malt extract Company (Limited), Mistley, wish the trade a very happy Christmas and prosperous New Year on a reply post- card — which to us is a new idea.

The Victorian era was also a time when shop windows and display cases became sophisticated advertising spaces to attract custom.

L0030356 A grocer's shop in England: doorway and shop window. Photogr Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images A grocer's shop in England: doorway and shop window. Photograph. Photograph 1900 Published: [ca. 1900?] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Figure 6 – A shop window, 1900 – Credit: Wellcome Library, London

The Chemist and Druggist evidently realised the importance of this phenomenon for the trade and published advice on how to create an attractive Christmas window.

“In the space between the stands and the window arrange neat boxes of perfumes, or anything suitable for presents; then bang from the top ” falling snow,” which may be made by small tufts of cotton wool attached deftly to fine white cotton, and woven together irregularly; … The side stands to be arranged with proprietary articles suitable for the season, as cough mixtures, etc. ….At the back of and over the doors scarlet chest-protectors might be fixed evenly, on which might be worked by pearl- coated pills, string together appropriately, “A Jolly Xmas!” [x]

Their advice seemed well received, a commentator on chemists’ shops in Dublin, Ireland remarked,
“The windows of a number of pharmacies are very neatly dressed with Christmas goods. I can see many instances where the craft have benefited by your valuable hints; an artistic arrangement taking the place of the odd medley which used to prevail”[xi]

With Christmas over a chemist reflected on the Christmas present-giving craze and looked hopefully towards a consumerist future:
“Before Christmas, we have been advising the trade to stock a certain class of goods suitable for presents, but surely it is a wise thing to have a good display of articles of this kind all the year through. In the matter of perfumes, for example, people are always wanting them. Birthdays come; presents are wanted then. Love is ever with us, and its path is strewn with perfume.”

Articles and advertisements from The Chemist and Druggist show that even in the nineteenth century Christmas was being exploited for commercial ends in the retail Pharmaceutical sphere- perhaps all a precursor to the extensive twenty-first century Boot’s Christmas Catalogue!

Only medical men could prescribe medicines under the 1815 Apothecaries Act- Chemists and Druggists were only allowed to supply these substances. So I will end with some Christmas humour from The Chemist and Druggist’s correspondence advice column, in which a chemist inquires,

“If I should meet with any accident on Christmas Day which should afflict me with headache on the morning of the 26th, may I without infringing the Apothecaries Act mix for myself a “short draught,” or must I apply to a duly qualified medical man?”[xii]



[i] The Chemist and Druggist, December 25th 1886, p.841

[ii] See: J. Brewer and R. Porter (1993) Consumption and the World of Goods (Routledge, London and New York) and N. Mckendrick, J. Brewer & J.H Plumb (1982) Birth of a Consumer Society: Commercialization of Eighteenth Century England (London, Europa Publications Limited)

[iii] The Chemist and Druggist, 26th December 1886, p. 913

[iv] The Chemist and Druggist, 22nd December 1888, p. ix

[v] The Chemist and Druggist, 24th December 1887, p.819

[vi] The Chemist and Druggist, 20th December 1890, p. 13

[vii] The Chemist and Druggist, 21st December 1889, p. iii

[viii] The Chemist and Druggist, 13th December 1890, p. 15

[ix] The Chemist and Druggist, 26th December 1896, p. 912

[x] The Chemist and Druggist, 22nd December 1888, p. 847-848

[xi] The Chemist and Druggist, 22nd December 1888, p. 841

[xii] The Chemist and Druggist, 15th December 1896, p. 514

Laura Mainwaring

How should the History of Medicine be studied?

The teaching of Medical History in Medical Schools has largely been a token gesture and with increasing pressure on the curriculum many have given up any attempt at formal teaching. Considering the scope of the subject and the practicality of producing a comprehensive teaching course, this is not surprising, And yet, most doctors feel that a knowledge of our medical past is important in our practice of medicine today. So how can we continue to enthuse and impart details of our medical heritage to our successors when it is more essential that they are exposed to the clinical skills of practising medicine.

It will perhaps be of interest to hear how we are approaching this problem in Sheffield University Medical School. At the very beginning of the MB ChB programme students undertake a 6-week ‘Student Selected Component on the History of Medicine’ in which they choose one essay title from a list of 270 that span the history of medicine from Ancient Egypt to the present day. The primary purpose of this assignment is to encourage students to develop their generic skills in information searching and synthesis, critical analysis, academic writing, the use of referencing systems and the avoidance of plagiarism. The history of medicine was chosen as the focus for this assignment as a topic that is hopefully of interest to all medical students at the very start of their careers, giving them a chance to consider medicine’s roots as they embark on their journey to become its future.

Over the past three years, history of medicine exhibitions have also been displayed in the medical school foyer. This started with ‘Sheffield Cares for the Wounded’ in 2014, commemorating the role of Sheffield doctors in a field ambulance on the Western Front in World War One as well as those caring for the wounded returning to Sheffield. Apart from the history of their own medical school, students learnt about the evacuation techniques developed then and refined today. This was followed by more focussed exhibitions on ‘Blood Letting’ dealing with leaches, cupping and scarification and more recently with ‘Inoculation and Vaccination’. Such exhibitions require a secure, alarmed, display cabinet which was obtained with financial support from the Medical School and Sheffield’s Charitable Trusts and which, although initially expensive, now enables us to borrow documents and precious artefacts from private and public collections as well as facilitating display of items from our own Medical School’s past history.

We think this dual approach is one way of keeping alive the study of the History of Medicine in our medical schools. Although requiring enthusiastic volunteers and financial support, it is, we think, more likely that attractive exhibitions such as these will more easily capture the interest of the average medical student than didactic teaching.

Derek R. Cullen , Consultant Physician Emeritus
Julian L. Burton, Senior Teaching Fellow, Academic Unit of Medical Education.

The UK Medical Heritage Library – a free on-line resource of 19C published work



The UK Medical Heritage Library (UKMHL) is now available as an open access collection via the Historical Texts service:

The collection has been produced through a three year project funded by Jisc and Wellcome Library to digitise over 15 million pages of 19th century published works. Encompassing over 65,000 publications, the subject areas covered are broad and include topics such as consumer health, sport and fitness, food and nutrition as well as medicine and medical practices, providing a valuable resource for study in the medical humanities and beyond.

A range of visualisations have also been created to help researchers explore the data in various ways.

  • Image wall: displays all of the images extracted from publications in your search results
  • Hospital map: enables you to identify and explore content related to specific hospitals
  • Timeline: displays events that occurred in the time period of your search results
  • Ngram: compare word frequencies
  • Dendrograms: for body parts and medical conditions
  • Sunburst diagrams: for body parts and medical conditions

The UKMHL collection is currently in a separate Labs area of the Historical Texts service, but it will also be added to the main service ( ) in 2017. So, for institutions that subscribe to Historical Texts, it will be cross-searchable alongside the existing Early English Books Online (EEBO), Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) and 65,000 texts from the British Library 19th Century collections. The collection will continue to be freely available to the general public as well though.


Image link:  (publication is in the Public Domain)

Susan Anderton
Service Manager (Historical Texts and Journal Archives, JISC)

Pills, prescriptions and pharmacists: creating a new pharmacy history course

©Royal College of Physicians, photography by Mike Fear ©Royal College of Physicians, photography by Mike Fear

When I was asked by the Faculty of History and Philosophy of Medicine and Pharmacy at the Society of Apothecaries whether I would consider programming an entirely new 3 day course in pharmacy history, I jumped at the chance.  Working with my co-course director, Dr Stuart Anderson, we had the opportunity to shape a mini course from scratch.  But what to include from an enormous history with a very broad reach?  And would anybody be interested in attending?

We decided firstly to focus on British pharmacy history, although the course began with a very brief overview of the global story up to 1500.  We were keen to include various strands in the programme including the pharmaceutical industry, the growth of the pharmacy profession and (as I’m a museum curator) plenty of access to original sources.  We also decided on a multi-venue approach to appeal to delegates and make the most of the wonderful resources in London.

Day 1 at the Wellcome Trust and Library included sessions on alchemy, business history, and law and ethics, but also a very popular session from Peter Homan demonstrating various dispensing techiques and introducing us to prescription registers from the Library collection as historical sources. Day 2 was at the Royal College of Physicians with lectures on the pharmacopoeia, pharmacognosy in the 19th century, and delftware drug jars.  Delegates were then treated to a tour of the RCP’s medicinal garden, and a chance to get up close to a selection of their rare books.  The day ended with a tour of the new Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum.  The final day was at Apothecaries’ Hall with an account of their history, an exploration of their manufacturing operations, and a tour of the current building.  The final afternoon comprised a lecture on the development of the pharmacy profession in the 19th and 20th centuries, and two sessions on the growth of the pharmaceutical industry.

It was an incredibly rich and packed 3 days with some excellent speakers, all of whom had written their lectures especially for the course, and some fantastic visits and source-based sessions.  And the 37 delegates were, thankfully, suitably inspired and impressed.  Typical feedback has been “the combination of talks, visits and displays was well balanced, refreshing and stimulating” and “the event was excellent and covered such an interesting range of material and locations.” Maria Ferran, Faculty Coordinator, has already received enquiries about running the course again, which is extremely pleasing.  If you might be interested in attending a future course, contact Maria

Briony Hudson