A Pill to Cure All Ills

The original "Worth a Guinea a Box" advert for Beecham's Pills. © Wellcome Images
The original "Worth a Guinea a Box" advert for Beecham's Pills. © Wellcome Images

by Ray Setterfield

August 6, 1859 — The world’s first advertising slogan – “Beecham’s Pills: Worth a Guinea a Box” – appeared on this day. In those days there were 20 shillings to a pound and a guinea amounted to 21 shillings – a fantastic amount for a pick-me-up box of pills.

They actually sold for a fraction of that, of course, but the notion that they could be worth a guinea was highly contentious. In fact, in 1912, the British Medical Association investigated the pills and concluded that they were made of 40 per cent aloes, 45 per cent ginger and 15 per cent powdered soap!

This failed to shake the faith of the British public in what was considered to be a wonderful cure-all and business continued to be brisk.

It all started in 1840 when Thomas Beecham set out with a bag of remedies to make his fortune in the cities of northern England. He had worked on a farm and developed an interest in herbalism while tending animals.

Pride of place amongst his stock of "cures" were the pills that he had named after himself and were presented at first as a simple laxative.

But the medicine quickly gained a reputation for curing all sorts of ailments and disorders and the business thrived. In 1859 Beecham built a factory to cope with the demand and Beecham’s Pills began to be exported across the world.

Thomas, a devotee of self-promotion and salesmanship, decided in 1894 to further boost the appeal of the pills by hiring the services of a Scottish poet named William McGonagall.

It was an odd choice, though, because although well known, McGonagall’s poetry was generally met with derision rather than praise. His public performances had been banned in Edinburgh because of the chaos that always followed, sometimes resulting in dead fish being thrown.

Here is the verse he created for Beecham’s Pills:

What ho! sickly people of high and low degree
I pray ye all be warned by me;
No matter what may be your bodily ills
The safest and quickest cure is Beecham’s Pills.

They are admitted to be worth a guinea a box
For bilious and nervous disorders, also smallpox,
And dizziness and drowsiness, also cold chills,
And for such diseases nothing else can equal Beecham’s Pills.

They have been proved by thousands that have tried them
So that the people cannot them condemn.
Be advised by me one and all
Is the advice of Poet McGonagall.

Almost despite McGonagall, the pills continued to be one of the company’s best-sellers right up to the 1950s. It was not until 1998 that they were finally withdrawn.

Published: July 1, 2016

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