Selling for a song

Peace on earth and good will to men may be in short supply, but there is no time like Christmas to appreciate that nowadays advertising is everywhere.  Billboards, newspapers, magazines, television, the Internet, cell phones . . . advertisers will try any means available to get consumers to buy their products.  So it’s hardly surprising to find 19th century advertisers taking advantage of one of the earliest forms of mass media:  sheet music.

In the year after the Civil War ended, Americans purchased some 25,000 new pianos, and by the late 1880’s over 500,000 Americans were taking piano lessons.  As a result, the demand for sheet music rose rapidly.  With some songs selling in the millions, it didn’t take long for companies to realize the commercial value of using sheet music to plug their products.

Song and Chorus of Rough on Rats (1882). Bella Landauer Collection of Business and Advertising Ephemera, PR031.

Most commonly, products and businesses were hawked on the back page of sheet music.  But in some cases, the music itself became the advertising medium.  An amusing example of such an early advertising jingle is the song “Rough on Rats,” published by its manufacturer E.S. Wells in 1882:

Squalling children, scolding wife/Were not the pest of my poor life/Wher’er I lived, in house or flats/My plague has been those horrid Rats . . .R-r-rats! Rats! Rats! Rough on Rats/Hang your dogs and drown your cats/We give a plan for every man/To clear his house with Rough on Rats.

Song and Chorus of Rough on Rats (back cover).

In addition to rat poison, Wells sold and/or manufactured a motley variety of quack medicines, including Wells’ Throat and Lung Balsam,  Mother Swan’s Worm Syrup, Chapin’s Buchu-Paiba Kidney and Urinary Cure, and Wells’ Health Renewer (“Greatest of All Remedies for Impotence, Debility, or Wasting Liver and Kidney Diseases”) — all prominently advertised on the back of his “Rough on Rats” sheet music.

A product equally absurd, but more suitable for musical promotion, was the Health Jolting Chair.

The Health Jolting Chair Gavotte (1885). Bella Landauer Collection of Business and Advertising Ephemera, PR031.

To market this device, the manufacturers published “The Health Jolting Chair Gavotte” — inspired, according to the (anonymous) composer “by the action of the Health Jolting Chair.”  A dance tune that originated in France, the gavotte has no lyrics (presumably, the noise of the chair would drown them out anyway).

The Health Jolting Chair Gavotte (back cover).

Instead, a full-page ad on the back of the sheet music takes a less whimsical approach to selling this apparatus:  “Nature has no use for the incorrigibly slothful.  Many persons are too lazy to live; and they do not live.  Their lives are shortened — disease fastening upon their ill-nourished bodies, sweeping them from mundane existence.  The exercise of the most important parts of the body — the internal nutritive organs, comprising the heart, lungs, stomach, liver, etc. — naturally should receive the first consideration in hygienic living; yet these are the parts that are usually most neglected by the class of fair beings mentioned, as well as by most persons of sedentary habits and occupations.”   Try making a catchy ditty out of that!




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