During the late nineteenth century, temperance became a mass movement, moving as a progressive cause toward the Eighteenth Amendment. In 1917 the American Medical Association voted in favor of prohibition, a year after whiskey and brandy were removed from the list of scientifically approved medicines.
That ran against a long and respectable tradition of medicinal alcohol. The pre-Prohibition advertisements below do not speak of alcohol as, in the words of Carrie A. Nation, the “destroyer of men’s souls.” The first glass does not lead to the grave, as in the popular print “The Drunkard’s Progress,” but, when used in moderation, keeps users, young as well as old, out of the grave. Through sacramental use, alcohol benefits the soul as well. Medicinal and sacramental uses of alcohol are often paired in advertisements.
No matter what you think about drink and health, you might be startled by the rosy view of alcohol, especially hard liquor, in these advertisements. We may be reminded of old cigarette advertisements when we read of “leading doctors” who recommend one brand of whiskey for their patients. Advertisers sometimes allowed a hint of hedonism. For example, the 1903 mascot of Huey & Christ seems to be a combination of Puck, Cupid, and Peck’s Bad Boy, unlikely to “try in moderation and grow old gracefully.” But the firm’s advertising repeatedly linked Bailey’s Pure Rye with dignified aging, medical care (a nurse is shown ministering to a hospitalized man), and refined conviviality.
The advertisements for widely used bitters, bitter cordials, and bitter wine of iron, on the other hand, did not directly promote this cheerful view, because their sometimes hefty alcohol content was not acknowledged (the products were recommended for women and for children, who were said to cry for Snyder’s Celebrated Bitter Cordial). But it seems that most of these remedies contained alcohol, based on the manufacturing process and on independent tests, and that many people knew it.