It’s a strange thing but for the late Victorians nervous complaints were as endemic as allergies are for us today. For those who felt a little below par and were in need of a pick-me-up, there was a bewildering array of tonics to choose from. One such was Hall’s Wine which was introduced to the unsuspecting public in 1888 by Stephen Smith & Co of Bow in East London.
Marketing is everything and Henry James Hall, the proprietor, hit on the wheeze of offering free tasting samples to anyone who bothered to write in. They were overwhelmed by the demand, so much so that they had to take out adverts in the press advising that “our offer…has brought us so many applications that our staff has been unable to attend to them on arrival. We are dealing with the letters in rotation, and hope to clear off arrears in less than a week”. I imagine the poor overworked staff had to glug copious amounts of the stuff to keep them going as they made strenuous efforts to reduce the backlog.
At its launch the potion, which sold at 2 shillings and 3 shillings and sixpence a time, was known as Hall’s Coca Wine and Hall was perfectly upfront about what was in it. “It is necessary to state”, the same advert goes on, “that Hall’s Coca Wine contains nothing but the extractive principles of the coca leaf and although a powerful nervine, is practically harmless”. So dosing yourself up with cocaine is practically harmless, is it? There was more than just coca leaf in the Wine – Old High Douro and Priorato Port. I hope the bottle was passed to the left.
In 1897 the Wine was rebranded, the Coca being dropped. It was not because Hall had any qualms about the cocaine content of his product, rather that he found that he was boosting the sales of inferior coca-based products. The adverts continued to boast about the efficacy of the tincture. It was ideal for when “you are neither one thing nor the other” and would allow you to regain “the last five or ten per cent of health, without which all is dullness”. Hall even garnered some glowing testimonials from distinguished organs such as the Lancet and the British Medical Journal. But trouble was looming.
Interestingly, it was not the cocaine that attracted opprobrium but the alcoholic content of the potion. Teetotallers were fooled, so some temperance worthies claimed, into thinking that they were knocking back some medicated substance which, despite the name, didn’t contain alcohol. For some, it was the start of the very slippery slope to alcoholism. The President of the Royal College of Physicians opined “the prescription of medicated wines is in some cases responsible for the starting of the drink habit, especially in women” and one anonymous contributor thought “the devil in disguise is more dangerous than the devil with his fork and tail”.
Eventually, of course, the cocaine content did for it but it is a fascinating insight into the views of the time that the evils of the demon drink outweighed those of a variant of the Colombian marching powder. There was a school of thought, though, that considered that less than enthusiastic abstainers saw the use of medicated wines as a way of getting their fix without overtly breaking their pledge. Whether the tonic did anything for the nerves is unclear but it certainly took the market by storm.