Holloway’s Pills and Ointments

Advertising label for Holloway’s Pills and Ointments, Sweden, early 20th century (57 x 35 mm)

Exhibitor : Mike Pryor

In September 1974 my university course started at Royal Holloway College in London, studying Chemistry. Although I had chosen the college due to its excellent reputation and great location, I had no knowledge of the history of the place nor of its founder Thomas Holloway (1800 – 1883).

Thomas Holloway. Photo credit: Thomas Dewell Scott, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Of course I took my matchbox collection with me, and spent many happy hours between lectures soaking off labels. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that I became aware of some lovely labels advertising Pills and Ointments from the very same Thomas Holloway.

A Victorian entrepreneur, philanthropist and master marketeer

Thomas Holloway made a considerable fortune by selling first his Ointments and then his Pills to the Victorian people. His started his business in 1837 and quickly realised that advertising his products was absolutely crucial, and probably much more important than the efficacy of the pills and ointments themselves. His medicines became a Victorian households, and his advertising dominated the newspapers of the day. He also greatly increased his wealth from successful speculations on the stock market. By the time of his death in 1883 he was one of the richest men in Britain and was spending over £50,000 a year on advertising. 

Thomas Holloway was married but had no children and was looking for ways to spend his fortune which would provide benefit to society at large. He left two magnificent buildings as legacies to the nation, which reflected his philanthropic nature :

  • Holloway Sanitorium in Virginia Water, opened in 1873 to provide mental health treatments for the middle-classes
  • Royal Holloway College in Egham, Surrey, opened in 1886 originally as a college for young ladies
Two wooden Swedish boxes, 35 x 59 x 18 mm

Holloway’s Matchboxes

In my collection I have two complete Swedish matchboxes advertising Holloway’s Pills and Ointments using the Little Boy Blue brand which was registered on 27th March 1911. They were clearly commissioned by the company long after Thomas Holloway’s death. However, I am sure that he would have wholeheartedly approved of this marketing approach.

Here are some variants of vertical labels advertising Holloway’s medicines.

Did the Pills and Ointment work ?

Holloway made claims that his Ointment possessed a “healing genius” but a subsequent analysis revealed that it contained only yellow and white beeswax, resin, lanolin and olive oil. Similarly, Holloway stated that his Pills would cure almost anything (skin diseases, general paralysis, venereal disease) although it seems that the Pills would only have had, at best, a mildly laxative effect due to their mixture of aloes, rhubarb root, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, saffron, Glauber’s salt and potassium sulphate. Perhaps we should consider them to be early forms of placebo ?

Here are some more labels claiming the efficacy of the medicines. They are probably back labels but it is unknown what was on the other side of the boxes.

The business was sold to Eno’s in 1930 which was then acquired by Beecham in 1938, who had been Holloway’s main competitors before then. 

I will always be grateful to the education I received at Royal Holloway College, and now have a much better appreciation of the complex, generous man who made it all possible through his creative approach to advertising.

Further Reading

Palaces, Patronage & Pills, by John Elliott, 1996.

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