Very many thanks to Lynda Mugglestone for this analytical post on an advertisement for Solomon’s Cordial Balm of Gilead. This item is not in the Art of Advertising exhibition.
In Jo Baker’s Longbourn (2013), a novel in which the events of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice are vividly retold from below stairs, it is perhaps fitting that Mrs. Bennet, sorely tried by the refusal of her daughter Elizabeth to marry Mr. Collins, retires to her dressing room in the company of a bottle of Cordial Balsam of Gilead. As an early nineteenth-century advertising in the John Johnson Collection persuasively asserts, this was an ‘admirable remedy’, suitable alike for ‘debilitated conditions’, ‘nervous weakness’, and ‘hypochondriacal afflictions’.
Female vulnerabilities were overtly addressed. Any women ‘affected with Langour, Headach, or Hysterical affections’ would benefit, contemporary readers were assured. So, too, would anyone in need of ‘relaxation from juvenile indiscretion’. Given Elizabeth’s intransigence, Mrs. Bennet’s self-medication is generous and abundant. In Baker’s novel, half a bottle swiftly disappears.
The medicinal qualities of balms can, in term of language, be traced to medieval times. A balm is an ‘aromatic ointment for soothing pain or healing wounds’, the OED confirms. Balm of Gilead has, however, its origin in Biblical authority. ‘Is there no balme at Gilead? is there no Physician there?’ as Book 8, Verse 22 of Jeremiah demands. The Liverpool-based Samuel Solomon (c.1768-1819) would, from c.1796, provide a very profitable response. On one hand, Solomon’s tactical appropriation of Balm of Gilead was used to denote one of the most prominent quack products of the late eighteenth century and nineteenth centuries. On the other, a decision to appropriate the status and learning of the ‘physician’ was deployed to equally good effect, as in the ‘M.D.’ which followed Solomon’s name in the various promotional publications and pamphlets he produced. A quack, as Samuel Johnson had stated in 1755 was, by definition, ‘a Boastful pretender to arts which he does not understand’. A doctor, in contrast, brought an undisputable claim to authority.
Boastfulness is perhaps an inevitable property of the language of advertising. Even so, Solomon’s preferred diction in advertising his ‘Cordial Balm of Gilead’ remains striking. Prefixes (‘inestimable’, ‘unprecedented’) deftly remind of the unparalleled qualities now offered to the consumer. Efficacy (‘wonderful success’) is extolled in similar ways, in remedial effects marked by their speed (‘instantaneously receives’) and unqualified strength (‘braces the nervous system…disburdens the viscera’ while throwing off ‘viscid strong humours’). Its popularity was lauded to equal effect. Sales, Solomon declares, have been ‘wonderfully great’, with ‘demand far exceeding any medicine ever published’, and a geographic range that includes ‘Europe’ and ‘America’. Advertising can easily become eulogy: ‘Thousands at this moment live to praise the day they first applied to this remedy, and enjoy the blessings of health, who might have dropped into an untimely grave’. A balm, Solomon stresses, can be a ‘social benefit’. The Cordial Balm of Gilead, was undoubtedly expensive —but, given its range of uses, it was also promoted as a bargain at half a guinea a bottle.
As a cordial balm moreover, its branding usefully harnessed antithetic qualities. Balms are conventionally solids, applied externally in order to soothe and restore. Cordials, in contrast, were traditionally depicted as fortifying from within, quickening the circulation or increasing the power of the heart. A cordial is ‘any medicine that increases strength’, Johnson explained in 1755. A cordial balm, at least rhetorically, could suggest its own innovatory synthesis, able to calm as well as fortify, sooth as well as invigorate — in ways that gave substance to the diverse lists of ailments for which restitution was promised, whether ‘Flatulence’ or ‘Palpitations’, ‘pain’, or ‘Difficulty of Respiration’. A conspicuous clustering of Latinate terminology (‘viscid’, ‘viscera’), and a catalogue of diagnostic nouns (deglutition referred, for example, to ‘The act or power of swallowing’) brought their own implied authority. Price and polysyllables both reinforced the elite status of the patent medicine purveyed.
We might note, even so, some interesting absences. The advertisement details, across two pages, the diverse conditions for which remedy is now apparently provided. The rhetorical power of lists, and their cumulative effect, is plain. So, too, is the range of human debility and the anxieties that can thereby be manipulated, as in the deliberately affecting details by which, for those denied this medical miracle, ‘the body is weakened’ while other symptoms (‘paleness, bodily decay, emaciation, and the eyes sink into the head’) await the hapless sufferer. The power of purchase might intentionally be secured on several levels. But the purchaser is, in reality, no wiser about what is being bought. Conviction must rest on credulity, rather than on a list of ingredients and their tried and tested benefits. If, in other accounts, Solomon stresses the presence of ‘some of the choicest balsams and strengtheners’ as components of his ‘noble Medicine’, alongside its scientific basis (‘reiterated experiments, and close application to practical chemistry’), advertising maintained a determined non-specificity. As William Helfand suggests, the ‘Cordial Balm’ was, in reality, probably a composite of ‘a few herbs and spices dissolved in a substantial percentage of old French brandy’. Certainly, Mrs Bennet in Baker’s fictional account, quaffs it with alacrity, finding her troubles eased. A cordial, as Johnson added, can be ‘anything that comforts, gladdens, and exhilerates’. Ease can, however, also be addictive – evident perhaps in the invitation to purchase by the case for those who, whether by accident or design, had become regular consumers.
William Helfand, ‘Samuel Solomon and the Cordial Balm of Gilead’, Pharmacy in History 31 (1989), 151-59.