Objects to promote health and well-being
Cold Cream pot lid

Medicines were expensive in Victorian times. Even a small bottle of a patent remedy such as Owbridge’s Lung Tonic cost a shilling, and compounds made up by druggists were seldom any cheaper. (A shilling, twelvepence, would buy twelve breakfasts at a cheap London restaurant.)

For most of the time, people entrusted their health to homely solutions such as tea, beef tea and ale, all of which were thought to nourish and strengthen. Brandy was given to invalids; children were given treacle to purify the blood; those sick with fever were encouraged to drink mineral water, and opium was taken as a painkiller and sedative. The highest consumption was in West Norfolk, where constant outdoor labour in the dampness of The Fens contributed to the severe rheumatism in the working population.

Opium was also given to babies during teething. Firms such as Curtis and Perkins introduced waste by selling opiate solutions in glass phials.

In the 1880s and 1890s, as the spending power of ordinary people grew, prepared medicines captured a greater share of the market. Their adverts were often the most eye-catching, their claims among the boldest. Quack doctors exploited the anxiety caused by illness to separate folk from their earnings. Known sufferers were targeted with junk mail, in the form of testimonials, guarantees and free samples. Richer families began purchasing medicines for their children as a matter of course – and there was no shortage of choice. Firms targeted such customers with entire ranges of products for beauty, hair loss and dental hygiene, providing free show stands for shopkeepers who agreed to sell their wares.

As shopping became a fashionable activity in the 1890s, middle-class housewives were increasingly tempted by face creams, perfumes, cosmetics and other toiletries, all in disposable packaging. Medicines became cheaper too, as growing numbers of competing cures in the market drove down prices.

By the 1910s, retail chemists such as Jesse Boot were undercutting the druggists by selling compounds at a discount. Soap was cheaper at Boots, and more and more people were using it. In 1870, sickness generated little waste, but by 1920 the proliferation of health and beauty products was creating a stream of disposable packaging, and although some bottles could be returned, most went into the bin.

Extract of Malt pot