Selling Dreams - Early advertising in Singapore

Medicine

Keep the doctor away

Medical advertising flourished in Singapore in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From medical halls and dispensaries to cure-alls and supplements, the lack of advertising regulation until the 1950s ensured that ads were able the make all manner of medical claims to capture patients and consumers in Singapore’s growing and increasingly health-conscious population.

The earliest forms of healthcare on the island were centred on private practices – Western and Eastern medicine alike were options available to the general public. Europeans naturally favoured Western practices, while the Asian population initially preferred traditional medicine provided for by local clan associations, private practices, and other traditional medical practitioners. Government-run clinics and hospitals in early Singapore were slow to be introduced until the European Seamen’s Hospital (later rebuilt as Tan Tock Seng Hospital) was opened in 1845, what passed as a hospital on the island was no more than a poorly maintained shed that had to be rebuilt several times over.

As a result, doctors on the island set up so-called private hospitals, and advertised for them in newspapers, offering all manner of medical services, including the selling of varied pharmaceuticals. However, private hospital care, no matter how reliable, was exorbitantly expensive, and few could afford to seek treatment. As such, over-the-counter medication was extremely popular, and self-medication was the norm for even severe medical cases, providing medical advertisers with a captive audience.

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Medical
Halls

The earliest forms of healthcare on the island were centred on private practices – Western and Eastern medicine alike were options available to the general public. Europeans naturally favoured Western practices, while the Asian population initially preferred traditional medicine provided for by local clan associations, private practices, and other traditional medical practitioners. Government-run clinics and hospitals in early Singapore were slow to be introduced until the European Seamen’s Hospital (later rebuilt as Tan Tock Seng Hospital) was opened in 1845, what passed as a hospital on the island was no more than a poorly maintained shed that had to be rebuilt several times over.

As a result, doctors on the island set up so-called private hospitals, and advertised for them in newspapers, offering all manner of medical services, including the selling of varied pharmaceuticals. However, private hospital care, no matter how reliable, was exorbitantly expensive, and few could afford to seek treatment. As such, over-the-counter medication was extremely popular, and self-medication was the norm for even severe medical cases, providing medical advertisers with a captive audience.

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The Cure

From malaria and tuberculosis to smallpox or venereal disease, residents in Singapore were vulnerable to a whole host of different ailments. With limited access to medical services, traditional medication, home remedies, and self-medication were prevalent through the 19th and 20th centuries. The growing pharmaceutical industry from the late 19th century onwards provided consumers with a plethora of different medications to choose from to cure their illnesses. Until the 1950s, there was little to no advertising regulation in Singapore, which gave room for advertisers to make all manner of bold and, sometimes, outrageous claims as to the efficacy of their products. Brands routinely promised quick fixes and cure-alls alongside public health warnings, playing on both the readers’ desire for good health and fear of illness.

All-cures and miracle cures were frequently advertised, and it was difficult for readers to separate fact from fiction. This era of medical advertising would come to an end in the 1960s, after the introduction of the Medicines (Advertisement and Sale) Ordinance, which required that advertised medical products and services be backed by authoritative research.

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Supplements for the Everyday

Beyond curing illnesses, the medical industry promoted a healthy lifestyle as the way to stay healthy. There was no shortage of advertising for supplements, tonics, and tablets that claimed to keep the body functioning healthily, occasionally even tailored for the constitutions of men and women. Youthfulness, fitness, and vitality were heavily stressed in health supplements, with advertisers stating that those who did not take advantage of supplements would be missing out on living a better life.

Also readily available were tonics and supplements for enhanced male and female physical performance and fertility, accompanied with listings of all manner of benefits, including increased energy and renewed vigour, often featuring illustrations of fit looking men and women.

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Women and Children first

As infant and child mortality was a major concern in Singapore throughout the mid-20th century, it is not surprising that a lot of attention was paid to the welfare of mothers and children.

The colonial government set up infant welfare centres and health services in schools in the early 1920s monitor and ensure the health of Singapore’s young. This priority was reflected in many medial ads, which emphasised joint health for mother and child. Beyond the health of their babies, women with the means to do so were also encouraged by advertising to look to their own post-natal health and the desire to return to their pre-natal appearance. Ads for supplements and ointments warned them against ill health during and after pregnancy, and promised to provide all the vitamins and mineral they needed to recover.

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CHECK OUT THESE BOOKS!

Desker & Co.

The Straits Times, 5 August 1865
Singapore: Straits Times Press

Fresh meats were highly sought after in Singapore in the 1800s, as there was only the occasional shipment of fresh meat from overseas, which had to be sold and consumed quickly to avoid spoiling from the lack of re-frigeration.

Getz Bros & Co.

The Straits Times, 18 January 1930
Singapore: Straits Times Press

Before the advent of the modern supermarket, resident and business owners in Singapore sourced their provi-sions directly from importers such as Getz Bros. & Co.

William J. Bernard

The Straits Times, 20 September 1947
Singapore: Straits Times Press

The Fresh Food Refrigerating Co.

The Straits Times, 16 April 1930
Singapore: Straits Times Press

Cold Storage

The Straits Times Annual, 1970
Singapore: Straits Times Press

While Cold Storage may have had its origins as a busi-ness primarily catered towards Europeans living in Sin-gapore, it soon expanded its clientele to include the local audience. Even in the 1970s, supermarket shop-ping remained largely the province of the middle and upper classes, as illustrated in this ad that promises value for money when one shops at Cold Storage.