Imagine if you could visit Victorian England and take a sneaky peek inside the cupboards of an ordinary house – and wouldn’t we all love to do that! Chances are you’d find numerous pills and potions designed to treat every ailment under the sun. The Victorians constantly worried about their health and that of their family – for good reason. Epidemics of infectious diseases came and went in never-ending cycles of typhus and typhoid, cholera, smallpox, measles and scarlet fever. Add in respiratory diseases like tuberculosis, which were the major killers from the 1880s, and you get a good idea of how unhealthy it was to live in Victorian England. Even catching a simple chill could lead to a more serious, life-threatening illness.
It’s no wonder, then, that the Victorians lapped up the claims of drug manufacturers to cure all ills. The newspapers were full of advertisements proclaiming the success of X, Y and Z to treat conditions like skin diseases, gout and digestive complaints. Many of the Victorians’ ‘tummy’ problems were probably a result of food adulteration, such as the addition of alum, ground bones and plaster to bread, and the extra ingredients of vitriol and cocolus indicus in beer. For the wealthy upper classes who ate large meals made up of multiple courses, indigestion was inevitable.
Patent medicines became hugely popular to solve digestive complaints and one of the most well-known examples was Holloway’s Pills, invented by Thomas Holloway, the son of a baker. Advertisements claimed the pills could ‘strengthen the stomach, and promote the healthy action of the liver, purifying the blood, cleansing the skin, bracing the nerves and invigorating the system’.
Here’s the front of a trade card for Holloway’s Pills and Ointments:
And here’s the reverse with Holloway’s claims for what his medicines could treat:
The pills and the ointment were hugely successful, not just in Britain but across the Empire. They made Thomas Holloway a multi-millionaire and when he died in 1883, he had amassed a personal estate of £596,335 plus freehold properties. After his death, the pills were analysed and found to contain nothing more than aloe, saffron and myrhh – a traditional herbal remedy.