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Drinking for Health: Proprietary Tonic Wines

  • Thora Hands
Open Access
Chapter

Abstract

This chapter examines the practice of drinking alcohol for health reasons. This was driven in part by the use of alcohol in medical practice but also by commercial factors, which played a significant role in promoting ideas about the health giving benefits of consuming certain alcoholic drinks. The chapter explores the ideas and controversies that surrounded the medicinal use of alcohol through a case study of Wincarnis Tonic Wine, which was one of the leading brands of tonic wine in the late nineteenth century. Political and medical debates existed about the therapeutic value of proprietary tonic wines which were sold and purchased as a means of self-medication for a range of psychological and physiological ailments.

To the medically uneducated public [meat and malt wines] undoubtedly seem a most promising combination: extract of meat for food, extract of malt to aid digestion, port wine to make blood - surely the very thing to strengthen all who are weak and to hasten the restoration of convalescents. Unfortunately, what the advertisements say – that this stuff is largely prescribed by medical men – is not wholly true. 1

In an article in The British Medical Journal in 1898, Dr F. C. Coley argued that doctors should warn patients and the general population to be wary when buying meat and malt wines. The problem with tonic wines was that they made bold therapeutic claims about the health-giving properties of alcohol based on flimsy medical evidence. Although the therapeutic use of alcohol was generally supported and propagated by doctors who wrote prescriptions for alcohol, it was important that its therapeutic use remains within the boundaries of medical control and not be thrown open to ‘the medically uneducated public.’ In other words, alcohol still had a place in medicine but the general public could not be trusted to use it wisely or responsibly. Yet despite the reservations of the medical profession, tonic wines were a commercial success and the idea of drinking for health was popular among alcohol consumers.

Foley’s argument highlights one of the main concerns about the marketing of tonic wines expressed by the 1914 Commission on Patent Medicines, which investigated the supposed endorsement of these products by the medical profession. The committee was acting upon ethical and moral concerns about the promotion of alcohol consumption for medical reasons. Dr Mary Sturge was called as an expert witness with professional experience on the effects of medicated wines. She was asked her opinion on why people buy tonic wine

I think one of the answers is that the advertisements are most extremely attractive and alluring. I have brought a group of advertisements here … One advertisement states that ‘Wincarnis is a natural nerve and brain food’ … I do not consider that anything which contains twenty percent of alcohol, which is a nerve depressant and a nerve irritant, has any claim to be called a brain food. Then there is the advertisement: ‘Nurse? One moment please. Wincarnis gives a strength that is lasting because in each wineglassful of Wincarnis there is a standardized amount of nutriment.’ That is calculated to make people think that it is really a nutritious mixture and when it comes to the analysis, we find that the little amount of meat extract is nothing approaching the amount of an ordinary cup of beef tea. My point is the misleading influence of the advertisements. 2

Dr Sturge believed that the general public was duped into buying and consuming tonic wine because they were either unaware of the alcohol content or believed that alcohol acted as a medium for the delivery of medicinal agents in the drink. There was no legal compulsion for manufacturers to disclose the alcohol content or ingredients in tonic wine on product labelling or advertising and these products fell into the category of ‘secret remedies’, which the committee defined as proprietary medicines where the labelling contained very little information on the contents and the product advertising made false or misleading claims. It was known that companies like Coleman and Hall made huge profits from the sale of their tonic wines and the issue that the committee had to consider was whether the public would continue to buy these products if they displayed accurate information on the alcohol content and added ingredients. The manufacturers claimed that by disclosing this information, their products would face increased competition, which would in turn harm their businesses. The key question for the committee was whether product labelling was in the best interests of consumers and this rested on establishing the reasons why people bought tonic wines in the first place. Dr Sturge shared the opinion that the general public viewed these products as medicines rather than alcoholic drinks. She also believed that some people simply did not care to know the alcohol content or believed that the alcohol content was minimal. She gave the example of her senior nurse

I asked my out-patient superintending nurse what she thought was in Wincarnis and she said “I think it is a nice mixture with perhaps a little alcohol in it.” The word win did not mean wine to her, although she is an intelligent woman. 3

The example of a senior nurse’s ignorance over the product labelling was perhaps intended to point the finger of blame towards the manufacturer’s misleading advertising (see Figs. 10.1, 10.2, 10.3, and 10.4).
Fig. 10.1

Wincarnis advertisement in The Penny Illustrated Paper , London, 1905

Fig. 10.2

Wincarnis advertisement, Illustrated London News, March 1909

Fig. 10.3

Wincarnis advertisement, The Penny Illustrated Paper , London, 1911

Fig. 10.4

Advertisement for Wincarnis, The Penny Illustrated Paper , 1906

The committee heard evidence from Mr William Rudderham, who was the general manager of Coleman & Co. Ltd., the manufacturer of Wincarnis. The company spent £50,000 annually on advertising the product and Rudderham admitted that the success of Wincarnis was largely due to the ambitious marketing campaign. 4 Coleman’s advertised the product in many of the London newspapers such as The Times, The Star, The Illustrated London News and The Penny Illustrated Paper . The adverts shown are typical examples of those that appeared in national and regional newspapers in England and Scotland. These adverts were themed around the medical uses of Wincarnis as an alleged treatment or cure for a range of physiological and psychological illnesses such as fatigue, brain exhaustion, worry, nervousness, influenza and pneumonia. All of the adverts shown were reliant upon two main strategies to sell the product: one was the use of testimonials from customers and from doctors and the other was the offer of a free sample for the price of a stamp—also known as the coupon system.

Figure 10.1 is typical of adverts that played on concepts of class and gender roles. In the advert, a man is pictured sitting working at his desk while a woman (presumably his wife) brings him a glass of Wincarnis ‘by doctor’s orders.’ The caption claimed that: ‘a man who spends his energies recklessly will quickly overdraw his account at the Bank of Health. A man as he manages himself may die old at thirty or young at eighty; brain fag is the foster parent of disease.’ In other words, overwork meant an early demise for professional middle-class men and an early widowhood for their wives, unless it was kept in check by a glass or two of Wincarnis. The medical claims of Wincarnis are more obvious in Fig. 10.2, which shows a nurse holding a tray containing an overly large bottle of the product beneath the caption ‘The famous winter wine tonic.’ This advert ran in March, perhaps to target people suffering from winter respiratory infections. It claimed that Wincarnis could not only treat winter illnesses but could also be used to prevent them. The medicinal qualities of Wincarnis were further supported by claims that it was used in nursing homes, hospitals and by the Royal Army Medical Corps. This apparent of the product by the medical profession was one of the advertising claims that the committee took issue with. On some Wincarnis labelling it was stated that the product was ‘recommended by 10,000 medical men.’ When asked by the committee if this claim was based on fact, Rudderham replied that the company had letters from doctors requesting free samples and that these counted as endorsements of the product. In fact, the ‘recommendations’ of 10,000 medical men were the return coupons for free samples.

Coleman was not the only company using this marketing technique. The committee also heard evidence from Mr Henry James Hall, managing director of Stephen Smith & Co., producers of Hall’s Tonic Wine, which differed from Wincarnis in that it contained quantities of coca extract, which was essentially cocaine. Both products were marketed in a similar way, as medicinal wines recommended by the medical profession. Hall stated that: ‘Apart from our advertising, the sale of Hall’s wine is largely influenced by the recommendations of doctors.’ 5 To support his statement, he produced letters from doctors and gave these to the committee as proof that doctors who had tried his product had voluntarily given the recommendations. On examining the letters, the committee found that some simply thanked the company for the receipt of free samples. Hall was asked if any of the letters came from doctors who had associations with the company because it was known that a large number of doctors held shares in Stephen Smith & Co. and two doctors were members of the board of directors. Hall dodged this question by reiterating that he had letters from doctors who were not associated with the company. Medical endorsement was the main line of defence used by both Hall and Rudderham to counter the committee’s accusations that they were in fact knowingly selling alcohol under the guise of a medicine and worse still, that their products were recommended for use by women and children. Some of the Wincarnis advertising did specifically target women, mainly for obstetric and gynaecological complaints but also for psychological problems. For example, an advert for ‘Coleman’s Delicious Wincarnis’ that appeared in the Penny Illustrated Paper in May 1908 stated: ‘For the housewife: When mother’s patience is taxed to the uttermost by domestic worries and she is almost ready to faint, Wincarnis is comforting and sustaining.’ 6 When asked if he considered it to be morally questionable and physically harmful to encourage women and children to drink alcohol, Hall stated that

This (his product) is recommended as a tonic and a restorative and when it has effected its purpose, these people do not continue to take it. They are not going to give three shillings and sixpence for a bottle of wine which does not do them any good. I say that in the case of these people who require the wine, who have been recommended to take the wine by medical men or have been directed to take it by our advertisements, after it does what we state, they leave off taking it. 7

When questioning both Hall and Rudderham, the committee referred to analyses of their products, which appeared in articles in The British Medical Journal in March and May 1909. The articles published the results of chemical tests carried out on some of the most popular brands of proprietary tonic wines, as shown in Fig. 10.5.
Fig. 10.5

Chemical analysis of tonic wines: The British Medical Journal , March 1909 8

Although not pitched as exposés, the articles revealed that most brands of tonic wines contained high levels of alcohol and very little else. Rudderham was asked if he believed that people, and particularly women, bought Wincarnis in the belief that it was a medicine that did not contain any alcohol. Rudderham replied that it clearly stated on the bottle that it was a wine and that ‘three small wineglassfuls should be taken daily’ and therefore he found it hard to believe that there could be any confusion over the alcohol content of the product. However, Dr Sturge provided statements from doctors and temperance groups which suggested that people were buying and consuming tonic wine in the belief that it was non-alcoholic. In one case, a women’s temperance group known as The White Ribboners, complained that ‘many’ of their members had drank tonic wine but were entirely oblivious to the alcohol content. In another case, a doctor from Leeds reported that one of his female patients began drinking Wincarnis when she was ‘run down’ after her second pregnancy. The woman continued to drink it in increasingly large amounts before moving on to drink spirits instead. At which point she reportedly became ‘hopelessly insane.’ 9 Dr Sturge argued that women drank medicated wine on a daily basis because they believed that the products provided strength and nourishment during and after pregnancy and childbirth. She essentially implied that women would only drink for health reasons and not for the purposes of pleasure or intoxication. Another witness, Mr John Charles Umney, managing director of the firm that produced Marza Tonic Wine, made the point that the word ‘wine’ in tonic wine indicated an alcohol content. Moreover, anyone who drank tonic wine would know that it produced a physiological effect. In other words, they would feel slightly drunk.

The issue of intoxication was central to the committee’s deliberations on the labelling and advertising of tonic wines. Despite evidence to the contrary, it must have seemed unlikely that men and women who purchased bottles of Hall’s Tonic Wine or Wincarnis were completely unaware of any alcohol content. It may have seemed more likely that people did not know of the relatively high alcohol content or the very small amounts of ‘medicinal’ ingredients contained in the drinks. Depending on the reasons for drinking, intoxication was either the intended primary effect or simply a side effect of the drink. In any case, the commercial success of tonic wine was unlikely to have been based on the belief that it was a non-alcoholic medicine. Most people would have known it was wine and because it was sold as a medicinal drink, people could consume alcohol for health reasons. In the case of women of all social classes, tonic wine provided a socially acceptable way to purchase and consume alcohol in private, for their own purposes and beyond the male gaze. For middle-class men and women, tonic wine perhaps offered an intoxicating relief from the pressures of work or domesticity. In this sense, Wincarnis and other tonic wines created a viable means of intoxication by promoting the idea of drinking for health reasons.

Tonic wine also provided a means of self-medication for people who could not afford to see a doctor or would not see a doctor for trivial ailments. In the last half of the nineteenth century, people were bombarded with adverts for various brands of tonic wines. An Internet search of the British Newspaper Archive for ‘tonic wine’ generated the highest number of results in the period from 1850 to 1899. 10 Most of these results were for advertisements that appeared in national and regional newspapers across Britain. Alcohol producers, wine and spirit merchants, licensed grocers and chemists were most likely to place adverts. For example, there was an advert in The Burnley Express in February 1892 for ‘Wilkinson’s Orange Quinine Tonic Wine’, which was described as ‘pure genuine wine of the Seville orange’ and was recommended for use in treating influenza, debility and loss of appetite. The wine was sold in all Co-operative stores in Burnley ‘at very low prices’. 11 Quinine was a popular additive to tonic wine, not only because of its supposed health-giving qualities but also because of its flavour, which was often described as pleasantly bitter or refreshing. Another advertisement for quinine wine appeared in The Pall Mall Gazette in July 1899. The advert was for ‘Quinquina Dubonnet’ which was described as an ‘appetizing, stimulating and strengthening tonic wine of the most delicious flavour made solely from Old Muscat wine and Mexican Quinquina.’ 12 Dubonnet Tonic Wine was developed by a French chemist during the French conquest of North Africa in the 1830s. It was designed to encourage the legionnaires to take quinine in a palatable form in order to combat malaria. 13 Another popular ingredient in tonic wine was coca extract, which was sometimes coupled with quinine. An advert for ‘Coca and Cinchona (quinine) Wine’ appeared in The Bath Chronicle in January 1889. The wine was intended for use in treating cases of neuralgia and was available from a local chemist in Bath. 14 Chemists often advertised various brands of tonic wines. One advert that appeared in The Arbroath Herald in June 1898 promoted the sale of ‘wines for invalids’ and listed various brands of meat and malt wines, invalid port and coca wine. 15 Some of the most widely advertised tonic wines were Hall’s Tonic Wine and Mariani Wine. The adverts provide examples (Figs. 10.6 and 10.7).
Fig. 10.6

Advert for hall’s wine: The Graphic: 6 January 1900

Fig. 10.7

Advert for hall’s wine: The Graphic: 2 September 1899

There was profit in selling alcohol as a tonic and companies such as Hall were not the only ones to use this tactic. In the late Victorian period, W & A Gilbey, one of the leading wine and spirit merchants in Britain, stated in its 1897 company report that inserting the word ‘invalid’ onto the labelling of various ports, wines and champagnes, had greatly increased sales of these products. 16 Gilbey had used this marketing strategy for a number of years and the 1885 price list included a large section on ‘special wines for the use of invalids’ which contained invalid champagnes, meat and malt tonic port, quinine sherry, coca wines and invalid port—all sold under the company Castle brand name. One advert for Castle Invalid Port contained an extract from an 1885 article in The Times which claimed

Dr Hood says: “there is no more wholesome wine than genuine port when it is well matured. Two or three glasses daily of such wine will act as a grateful stimulant to the stomach and will assist digestion. Dr. Mortimer Granville states: “stimulants are almost always, I believe, necessary in cases of gout tendency and during the intervals of these attacks. I impose no restrictions except that all alcoholic beverages shall be taken with food and that new or imperfectly fermented wines shall be avoided. 17

An 1892 sales report stated that in a recent influenza epidemic, more than 200,000 bottles of invalid wines and champagnes had been sold. This gives some sense of the popularity and reliance upon alcoholic substances as medicinal tonics. Doctors still prescribed alcohol as a medicine and consumers also used it as a means of self-medication. It is hardly surprising that the drink trade capitalised on this and marketed products accordingly. As a tonic, alcohol could be drunk moderately and respectably to alleviate a myriad of psychological and physiological problems. This was an attractive idea—particularly for certain groups of consumers who could not otherwise drink without incurring social and moral disapproval. Yet the idea that alcohol was a tonic divided the opinions of the medical profession, and the claim that Wincarnis was endorsed by ‘thousands of medical men’ was based on very thin evidence. The company could, however, have legitimately claimed that the medical profession still relied upon wine in the treatment of disease and illness. The use of alcohol in medicine not only held commercial value but it also shaped public opinion on the substance and thus partly influenced consumer choices. From a consumers’ perspective—if doctors were prescribing alcohol and companies were selling it as a preventative and cure-all for virtually all forms of ill health, then it must have been very tempting to turn to alcohol for comfort and relief. The tonic wine boom is perhaps proof of that.

Notes

  1. 1.

    Dr F. C. Foley: ‘Medicated Wines’: The British Medical Journal: Volume 2:715: 10 September 1898.

     
  2. 2.

    House of Commons Parliamentary Papers (HCPP). 1914: 414: Report of the Select Committee on Patent Medicines: Evidence of Dr Mary Sturge.

     
  3. 3.

    HCPP. 1914: 414: Report of the Select Committee on Patent Medicines: Evidence of Dr Mary Sturge.

     
  4. 4.

    HCPP. 1914: 414: Report of the Select Committee on Patent Medicines: Evidence of Mr William Rudderham.

     
  5. 5.

    HCPP. 1914: 414: Report of the Select Committee on Patent Medicines: Evidence of Mr Henry James Hall.

     
  6. 6.

    ‘Coleman’s Delicious Wincarnis’: Penny Illustrated Paper : London: 23 May 1909.

     
  7. 7.

    HCPP. 1914: 414: Report of the Select Committee on Patent Medicines: Evidence of Mr Henry James Hall.

     
  8. 8.

    ‘The Composition of Some Proprietary Dietetic Preparations’: The British Medical Journal: Volume 1:795: 27 May 1909.

     
  9. 9.

    HCPP. 1914: 414: Report of the Select Committee on Patent Medicines: Evidence of Dr Mary Sturge.

     
  10. 10.

    The British Newspaper Archive: http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk: accessed 1/3/2016: The search results were: 1800–1849 = 12,661; 1850–1899 = 274, 952; 1900–1949 = 58.

     
  11. 11.

    The British Newspaper Archive: The Burnley Express: 10 February 1892.

     
  12. 12.

    The British Newspaper Archive: The Pall Mall Gazette: 7 July 1899.

     
  13. 13.

    ‘Who Still Drinks Dubonnet?’: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8159201.stm: accessed 1/3/2016.

     
  14. 14.

    The British Newspaper Archive: The Bath Chronicle: 24 January 1889.

     
  15. 15.

    The British Newspaper Archive.

     
  16. 16.

    Diageo Archives: 100433/1: W & A Gilbey Committee Minutes: 1897.

     
  17. 17.

    Diageo Archives: 100422/190: Gilbey Price List: 1870.

     

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Authors and Affiliations

  • Thora Hands
    • 1
  1. 1.Social SciencesCity of Glasgow CollegeGlasgowUK

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