A masterclass in medical advertising: Emma Spary in Sheffield

Emma Spary mid-lecture, with slide defining "Drugs" in background.
Emma Spary, evening lecture. Photo (c) I.C. Hine.

On 20-21 October 2016, SCEMS welcomed Emma Spary, Reader in Modern European History at the University of Cambridge, as part of our Visiting Speaker Series. The visit, co-hosted by the Department of French, provided the occasion for an evening lecture exploring the monarch’s role in promoting quinquina in the seventeenth-century French court, followed by a masterclass on Medical Advertising (drawing on the 2014 monograph Feeding France).

Sheffield postgraduate Jose Cree reports on the morning session:

Emma began with a broad discussion of her previous research interests and publications, speaking about the path that lead to her interest in our topic today: pharmacological advertisements in seventeenth and eighteenth century France. Inspired by the work of her colleague Colin Jones at the University of Warwick, Emma began examining the role of advertisers as mediators for scientific knowledge, facilitating the transfer of ideas from institution to general public. She approached the advertisements first as material objects, but also as spatial objects, located in a specific place in the city.

Spary mid-presentation, with a map.
Emma Spary’s masterclass. Photo (c) J. M. Cree.

After this brief background to her work, Emma launched us into a historical detection story set in the mid seventeenth century, involving a young medical student, a coffee advertisement, and the first Parisian coffee house. Emma meticulously traced the history of a bill sticker from Paris, which was picked up as a curiosity by a medical student, and ended up travelling around Europe in various guises; first in a Latin and German doctoral dissertation, and later in a treatise on coffee. Her interest in the spatial and material aspects of the source lead her to uncover the location of the first coffee house in Paris, the Grand Turc. This was situated so that foreign visitors to Paris would have walked past it on their way to the medical faculty, and was apparently unknown to, or at least unfrequented by, Parisians themselves.

Next we jumped a hundred years forward to look at trade cards as both political statements and works of art. Emma focused on one particular trade card for the druggist Houdemart, which played on the ubiquitous garlands-and-putti motif by incorporating medical apparatus into the garlands, and chemical symbols into the banners. The inclusion of medical tools – which had been the subject of recent legislation – was both a political statement, and a declaration about the source of expertise. At the same time, by commissioning a well-known artist to draw the cards, Houdemart ensured they were the height of fashion. As a result, Emma argued, these print objects had a life span beyond their commercial value; over time they ceased to be linked with commerce, and instead became associated with style and good taste.

Trade card with text "Houdemart droguiste".
The Houdemart “druggist” trade card.  Photo (c) J.M. Cree.

Taking a break from presenting, Emma hosted a lively Q&A session, with topics ranging from beehives to central heating. Some highlights:

  • Advertisements were not necessarily seen as a separate genre from the articles in a medical journal, although money probably changed hands.
  • Printed advertisements reached the poor, but weren’t necessarily for them: travelling drug sellers used bill stickers to attract huge crowds, but gave free samples to the poor in order to attract the attention of richer clients.
  • Symbols found on apothecaries’ labels could have multiple meanings: beehives were associated with republicanism; the sun, with enlightenment and alchemistry.
  • The claims made for a substance were linked by the humoral impact of the drug. For example, coffee treated both shortness of breath and worms, because of its drying effect. One of the arguments for central heating was that it would help keep the humours in balance.
Tradecard with swan.
Tradecard from Emma Spary’s masterclass. Photo (c) J.M. Cree.

The final minutes of the masterclass looked at the imagery and artwork used by apothecaries and druggists. Using a slideshow of trade cards, Emma discussed the practice of employing renowned artists; the shift in the 1760’s from garlands-and-putti to neo-classical, masculine motifs; and the stark difference between the fashionable, highly personalised images created for apothecaries, and the off-the-shelf generic card style used by other professions.

This was a masterclass packed with interesting anecdotes and a wide range of material, but underlying all of this were two key arguments. Emma showed how approaching trade cards, bill stickers, and advertisements as both material and spatial objects could answer questions about the transfer of knowledge; and that those same advertisements, through the artwork and symbolism employed, could have a lifespan as fashionable objects, beyond their commercial value.


Both the lecture and masterclass were also broadcast on Twitter, using the hashtags #SCEMSVSS and #Spary.

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