2017 Conference blogs – ‘Pharmacy atmosphere’: the impact of commercial spaces on patent medicines and their consumers in early twentieth-century Britain

Erin Bramwell, Lancaster University

‘Pharmacy atmosphere’: the impact of commercial spaces on patent medicines and their consumers in early twentieth-century Britain

Architecture and the spaces that it creates are not ‘neutral’, nor are they reducible to their geometric qualities. In a similar vein, the meanings of commodities are not static: meaning can be constructed and shaped by different environments and other forces; indeed, they are not sold in ‘voids’. Because of this, my paper at CHORD’s ‘Retailing, Distribution, and Reputation’ workshop (23 May, 2017) proposed that an analysis of the different retail environments in which products were sold can provide new and interesting perspectives on the meanings of commodities to their consumers.

The commodity that I am particularly interested in is patent medicines. Usually discussed in a seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth-century context, patent medicines were in fact increasingly popular in twentieth-century Britain, to the extent that the trade was worth between £20 and £28 million in 1937. They were also sold in a wide array of accessible commercial spaces, ranging from rationalized, brightly-lit chain stores such as Woolworth’s, to traditional, independent chemist shops that had been established in the early nineteenth century. Whilst the exact range of brands sold undoubtedly varied from space to space, this assortment of spaces is noteworthy because styles of design have symbolic capacity, and can act as a ‘conscious expression’ of important messages such as ‘safe conduct’ according to Iain Black.[1] Claire Walsh also argues that shop design could have a ‘direct impact’ on a variety of products for sale.[2] As such, shop design could add an additional layer of symbolic meaning to the product itself.

This additional layer of meaning was crucial to a trade that was continually plagued by controversy in the early twentieth century. The trade attracted the attention of the government to the extent that a Select Committee was set up to address the issue in 1912; the Committee’s report was published in 1914 and a growing body of legislation echoed concerns related to, but not limited to, purity, quality, and false claims. Therefore, although patent medicine firms did not directly oversee the retail spaces in which their products were sold, these environments offered an opportunity to reassure consumers, whilst also overpowering the voices of the government and the medical profession via the expression of values such as reputation, efficacy, and purity. This may not have been the direct intention of retailers, who often had their own agendas and own-brand products, however, the expression of values such as these could be mutually beneficial to both the retailer and the patent medicine firm. For example, chemist shops often had their own-brand preparations that were sold alongside manufacturers’ preparations; as competitors, these own-brand medicines were equally susceptible to concerns regarding the reputation of the chemist, and the purity, quality, and safety of the preparation itself. As a result, chemists had much to gain from the material qualities of their shop.

My paper could not possibly discuss all of the different environments in which patent medicines were sold, so I chose to focus on the space of the chemist shop. Chemists are particularly relevant to the study of patent medicines, as commercial pressures meant that the majority could not afford to avoid stocking patent medicines – it was something that consumers had grown to expect.[3] Patent medicines were a dominant commodity in these spaces: heavily advertised, they often featured in display windows, and as a result, confronted consumers before they had even entered the shop. A myriad of other products were also sold alongside patent medicines in chemist shops, such as toiletries, handbags, books, cosmetics, and chemist-made preparations. Despite this level of competition from other products, patent medicines were frequently mentioned by oral history interviewees and Mass Observation participants in relation to chemist shops, demonstrating their strength of presence within this space.

Focusing on material culture, I argued that the fittings and objects used within the space of the early twentieth-century chemist shop possessed connotations of tradition, and that this directly affected the sale of patent medicines. This included the usage of fittings that reminded an oral history interviewee who had been a chemist in interwar Britain of ‘old shops’ that had ‘pharmacy atmosphere’. I also considered the preservation and display of specie jars and carboys within interwar chemists. Dating from around the eighteenth century, they were traditionally used to store liquids, botanical drugs, chemicals, and compound powders. These containers were retained, displayed, and even incorporated into the branding of early twentieth-century chemist shops, despite no longer serving a ‘functional’ purpose. For example, in 1935 the Chemist and Druggist noted how the chemist of Woodhouse & Son in Ludlow ‘still [had] six carboys’ in each window’, just like it did in 1810 when it was originally established. Crucially, these features are explicitly referred to as ‘reminders of the past’, a category which also included ‘half a dozen labelled pharmacy jars’ and ‘a ceiling adorned with a Tudor rose’.[4] Chemist chains such as Taylors also incorporated carboys into their branding and shop design. Carboys featured in shop signs, often serving as a backdrop for the ‘Taylors’ name, highlighting its integral nature to the company (figure 1). Similarly, the shape of a carboy formed a key component in the design of their glass windows on the shop front (figure 2); its presence within the very fabric and structure of the shop indicates the centrality of ‘reminders of the past’ to the physical makeup of certain early twentieth-century chemist shops.


Figure 1: Taylors Chemist, Darley Street, Bradford, 1934-5, Boots Archive, Nottingham.

Bramwell 2

Figure 2: Taylors Chemist, Stratford Road, Birmingham, 1934-5, Boots Archive, Nottingham.

At a time when the pharmaceutical industry was expanding and popularising ‘modern’ products such as Aspirin,[5] the presence of these traditional symbols is somewhat surprising. However, it connected with Britain’s distinctive style of modernity at this time: rather than making a distinct break with the past, British contemporaries created continuities between the past and the present, something that Martin Daunton and Bernhard Rieger call ‘traditions of modernity’.[6] This particular style of modernity chimed with the selling messages of certain companies, for instance, Daunton and Rieger’s ‘traditions of modernity’ concept is also applicable to the brand Beecham’s Pills. Their packaging in c.1945 displayed the same pattern as it had in c.1885, a decision that prioritised their long-established presence in Britain over newer, more fashionable designs. This is particularly interesting when it is considered in relation to reputation – something that was especially important for a trade that was plagued by controversy; indeed, their long-standing presence was deemed to be significant. This was mirrored in their advertising, in which their enduring presence in Britain was continuously highlighted with messages such as ‘Old friends are best’ and ‘Confidence is not won in a day’. Indeed, confidence was not won in a day – highlighting the importance of tradition, familiarity, and consistency within early twentieth-century healthcare. This was echoed by numerous other patent medicine companies such as Zam-Buk who toyed with the dynamics of tradition and modernity in their marketing messages. Their advertisements frequently stressed that the trademarked ointment had connections to ‘rare and potent balms that were so well known to the Romans’, whilst also underlining its modern and ‘scientific’ nature, demonstrating the extent to which tradition could exist alongside modernity within healthcare and medicine at this time – it could offer reassurance at a time when the market was increasingly ‘pumped’ with new products.[7]

An exploration such as this allows a more nuanced, multi-layered understanding of popular commodities such as patent medicines. It recognises that shops were a ‘material space’ that could affect the objects sold. Because of this, I put forward the idea of a ‘triangular relationship’ between commercial environments, commodities, and their consumers. Whilst it may not have been the direct intention of chemists, the advertising messages put forward by companies such as Beecham could be reinforced and emphasised by the environments in which their products were sold.


[1] Iain Black, ‘Spaces of Capital: Bank Office Building in the City of London, 1830-1870’, Journal of Historical Geography, 26:3 (2000), p. 362.

[2] Claire Walsh, ‘Shop Design and the Display of Goods in Eighteenth-Century London’, Journal of Design History, 8:3 (1995), p. 167.

[3] Roy Church, ‘The British Market for Medicine in the Late Nineteenth Century: The Innovative Impact of SM Burroughs & Co.’, Medical History, 49:3 (2005), p. 283.

[4] The Chemist and Druggist, March 30, 1935, p. 387.

[5] For further discussion, see: Steven M. Rooney and J. N. Campbell, How Aspirin Entered Our Medicine Cabinet (Cham, 2017), p. 20; Joseph M. Gabriel, Medical Monopoly: Intellectual Property Rights and the Origins of the Modern Pharmaceutical Industry (Chicago, 2014), pp. 196-98.

[6] Martin Daunton and Bernhard Rieger (eds), Meanings of Modernity: Britain from the Late-Victorian Era to World War II (Oxford, 2001), p. 5.

[7] Rooney and Campbell, Our Medicine Cabinet, p. 16.

Erin Bramwell is a 1+3 ESRC PhD candidate at Lancaster University



1 Comment

Filed under 2017 Workshops, Conference blogs

One response to “2017 Conference blogs – ‘Pharmacy atmosphere’: the impact of commercial spaces on patent medicines and their consumers in early twentieth-century Britain

  1. Thanks For Post great info about pharmacy. Citations International Organizing pharmacy Conference 2018

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