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Mumbaiwale: It All Ads Up

Bombay knows how to sell. And print advertisements from a century ago show that we were just as gullible then

Updated: Nov 16, 2019 00:39 IST

By Rachel Lopez,

At a lecture this week, I glimpsed the parallel world of ads for medicines, tonics and toiletries in colonial Bombay. (Alamy Stock Photo)

I love advertisements. Growing up, when we returned to Mumbai from vacation, I’d eagerly check out the billboards on the way home. If the city was still trying to sell me something, still hustling, it was my sign that all was right with the world.

Mumbai, it turns out has always been a marketplace. You’ve probably been forwarded a collection of vintage ads from India – deities endorsing Pears Soap and Gripe Water, Tagore hawking Bournvita, Prem Chopra claiming Vaseline made his hair shiny.

At a lecture this week, I glimpsed the parallel world of ads for medicines, tonics and toiletries in colonial Bombay. Historian Mridula Ramanna shared some fascinating examples of tall claims and dubious formulations. “The ads were aimed at expats and the English speaking locals,” she said. “Many products emphasized that they did not alcohol, opium, mercury and cod liver oil, or were vegetarian, to influence consumer choices. And there was a covert sale of products for male virility and female birth control – with lots of euphemisms.” Here’s what her research found:

Doctors openly advertised: Medical promotion was not discouraged or frowned upon as it is today. The Native Opinion journal of 1882 advertises Dr Batliwala’s cure for cholera. Dr Dean’s Pills claimed to contain phosphorus, kola nut, a plant called nux vomica, and an aphrodisiac called damiana. Dr Fern, a dermatology professor at the Grant Medical College would sell beauty elixirs. Midwives would publicise their services in the 1870s, at a time when doctors viewed the practice with suspicion.

Testimonials worked even then: They were just as dubious. One American woman claimed that her dentist fitted false teeth without plates. A Mrs Barton from England stated that Clark’s ‘world famous’ Blood Mixture, formulated for rheumatic issues and varicose veins, had cured her of them for 30 years. One Unani potion was also endorsed by the Begum of Bhopal.

Multipurpose cure-alls were all the rage: Milk of Magnesia was not just a laxative, but a face mask for beauty. Martins Pills No 2, containing ‘seven of the most powerful and rich English drugs’ were designed for headache, pale countenance, indigestions, kidney problems, night sweats, female weakness and impure blood. They were promoted as ‘Invaluable to brain workers’. Peps was advertised as a ‘pine forest in a bottle’ with pills wrapped in silver paper that let you ‘breathe from the lungs’. There was a diabetes whisky, a medicated ghee, a Benedictine liquor to prevent strokes (‘Many celebrated doctors and literary men testify to its efficacy’), and something called Zambuk, which ‘no household should be without’.

Ingredients sold everything: Tonics with and without opium had different prices. Cod-liver oils claimed to come only from ‘cods caught in Norway’. You could take quinine-cinnamon pills for influenza. And eucalyptus for sciatica.

Everyone wanted more energy: One ad asked, ‘Has India treated you kindly?’. The belief was that the colony made the blood sluggish and the body weak. So Horlicks ads featured an image of an elephant. Vimto offered a burst of vigour. Haemobin syrup helped ‘regenerate’. An Italian preparation Nervy Gor (marketed by the Anglo-Indian Pharmaceutical Company) restored lost vigor and memory. James Electro Tonic Pearls, were ‘of special value to clergy, tutors, students, lawyers and those engaged in mental professions’.

Women were a market: A newspaper ad from 1906 for Dr Williams Pink Pills claims they are a ‘lady’s safe remedy from functional trouble’ Many products claimed to alleviate painful and excessive menstruation. There was an elixir that was cool for ladies with with hot temperament and hot for ladies with a cool temperament’.

Swadesh products sold well: You could buy Laxmi Vilas Ras for the after-effects of influenza. Zandu sold a blood purifier. Kalidas Motilal from Rajkot manufactured Royal Yakuti to increase nerve power. And Dongre’s Bal Amrut continued to sell well long after Independence.


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