Victorian Advertising Paradise - A Chromolithographic Pharmacy Catalogue

Imagine walking into a drug store and seeing these exuberant, enticing labels all around you. They're part of what's probably the most colourful item in our stock at the moment: a chromolithographic pharmacy catalogue dating from the 1890s.

Before the era of high street chains and name brand medication, most pharmacies were small businesses that compounded their own drugs, hygiene products, perfumes, and sodas, or purchased generic versions in bulk to sell under their own labels. This led to a flourishing trade in decorative glass bottles, boxes, and paper labels that served as in-store advertising. These were sold direct to shopkeepers via trade catalogues like as this one, from the German pharmaceutical supplier Michael Birk.

This particular catalogue advertises a wide range of pharmaceutical and medical supplies illustrated with engravings, but its most attractive feature are the 30 pages (some extra-wide and folding) of colour labels for medicine bottles and boxes. 

Most of the designs are elaborate and highly decorative, often incorporating metallic printing. The Art Nouveau style appears frequently, while some labels have an exotic or Orientalist flavour, and others use historical imagery. 

The catalogue was evidently designed for international distribution as the examples are shown in several languages, including Arabic. Pharmacists could also customise many of the designs with their own name and address in a variety of attractive typefaces.

Among the products that could be advertised are lemon and orange syrup, ginger ale, "Egyptian nerve tonic," quinine, toothpaste, cod liver oil, and antiseptics.

A variety of alcoholic beverages are represented, including wine, port, rum, punch, champagne, and gin. 

Labels for cosmetics and scented waters are well represented, and of particular note are the nine pages of fine perfume labels incorporating metallic, die-cut, and embossed cameo-like decoration.

This stupendous volume is in fine, unused condition — uncommon for trade catalogues — and perfectly encapsulates the vibrant advertising of the Victorian Era.


Laura Massey
Laura Massey

Author

Alembic founder Laura Massey holds a bachelor's degree in the history of science from Georgia Tech and a master's in book history (focusing on medieval and early modern scientific and medical books,) from the Institute of English Studies at the University of London. She has worked as a cataloguer, bookseller, and blogger in libraries and bookshops in the United States and Britain.



1 Comment

Earnest Painter
Earnest Painter

July 27, 2018

When I was studying graphic design I loved looking at exotic bottles like this.

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