Thursday, April 7, 2016

Advertising card for Ayer's Cherry Pectoral (with morphine!)

This Victorian advertising card measures 8 centimeters by 13.2 centimeters.1 It's not in the best shape. The back of the card is badly damaged, due to it having been pasted into someone's scrapbook at some point. But we're not picky about the quality of the ephemera here at Papergreat, and it doesn't have to be pristine to tell a story.

This card for Ayer's Cherry Pectoral isn't that rare. A Google search brought up numerous examples. But the Ayer's story is a good one and card, with its dove-loving, cherry-toting Kate Winslet doppelgänger, is worth sharing. Here's the full text from the front:

Ayer's Cherry Pectoral
Colds, Coughs and all Throat and Lung Diseases.
Ayer's Cherry Pectoral
Prepared by Dr. J.C. Ayer & Co., Lowell, Mass. USA.
Prompt to Act. Sure to Cure.

And here's an excerpt from the portion that's still readable on the back of the card: "The confidence the public have in AYER'S CHERRY PECTORAL is the natural consequence of fifty years' marvelous and beneficent service in restoring health and saving precious lives."

James Cook Ayer (1818-1878)2 was a New England businessman who accumulated a fortune estimated at $20 million3 thanks to his successes with patent medicine.

According to an excellent article on the New England Historical Society website, Cherry Pectoral was Ayer's first medicine, and one of his most effective ones. The biggest moneymaker for Ayer, who had a medical degree but never practiced, was sarsaparilla, which was shamelessly touted as "a real blessing that purifies the blood, stimulates the vital functions, restores and preserves health, and infuses new life and vigor throughout the whole system." It was recommended for everything from syphilis to jaundice to pimples.

Of Ayer's Cherry Pectoral, the New England Historical Society states:
"He was accused of using misleading advertising to sell quack medicines and miracle cures. His defenders say Ayer’s claims were well within the bounds of medical knowledge in the 19th century. Cherry pectoral contained three grams of morphine – but that was a lot less than doctors were prescribing at the time. ... Cherry pectoral did not cure lung ailments, as advertised, but it did treat the symptoms of a cold, which helps patients improve."
The sarsaparilla, however, decidedly did not work, the same article claims. Neither did a hair restorer called Hair Vigor.

Ayer & Co. also produced almanacs as part of its aggressive campaign to advertise its products. You can read about those efforts in Darin Hayton's article "Quack medical cures: J.C. Ayer and the persistence of personal testimony" at the Philadelphia Area Center for History of Science's website.

Here's an illustration from the back of the Cherry Pectoral card.

Related posts

1. I'm putting John Bemelmans Marciano's Whatever Happened to the Metric System?: How America Kept Its Feet on my to-read list.
2. His life did not end well. According to his obituary from The New York Times: "For the past two years he had been in extremely poor health, and for some part of that period his mental condition was such that he had to be confined in an asylum for the insane."
3. Twenty million circa 1870 would be the equivalent of about $378 million today, enough to buy the NHL's Colorado Avalanche.

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