Layers of ghosts on Abbotsford Street

If you’ve been following this blog for a while you’ll know that I’m fascinated by ghostsigns – old painted signage, advertising products and businesses that often no longer exist. Melbourne has thousands of these signs, some of them still in excellent condition, others faded away almost to nothing. The ones I prefer tend to be the ones which offer up their secrets slowly – providing just a few clues as to their history, which can be decoded with a little patient investigation.

A classic example occurs on the wall of 445 Abbotsford Street, North Melbourne. Here there are three old signs on the one wall. The most recent, and the clearest, is Penfolds Wine – there are many Penfolds ads around the suburbs (including a superb one for Maison Marney brandy in nearby Canning Street). The other signs on this wall require some detective work – but it’s worth it.

Ghostsigns

1844 to when?

The sign at the top right is easy: it’s Penfolds Wine, the well-known (and still very successful) wine company whose ads appear all over the Melbourne suburbs. I’d say this one was painted much more recently, and over the top of, the ones below. Even so, it has deteriorated in recent years: a photograph from the ghostsigns website Our Fading Past shows that not long ago the tagline ‘1844 to Evermore’ appeared clearly below the brand name, but now those words are almost illegible. That’s not something we should necessarily regret: part of the intrigue of these signs is that they fade before our eyes. (Back when Andrew took his photo, the vegetation in front of the wall was  less bushy, too. Although the foliage partially obscures the signs, it probably helps to protect them.)

Why is that monkey wearing a suit?

Monkey Brand ghostsign

The ghostsign on the lower part of the wall is more of a puzzle, as the brand itself is a ghost, absent from its own sign. Just what is being advertised here? Probably the Penfolds sign was painted over the top of the brand name, obliterating it. But we still have part of a slogan – the legible part of which reads ‘Wash Clothes But Will Clean Metal and Woodwork Well’ and a curious character, bottom right, appearing almost in silhouette, apparently an animal dressed as a human.

Entering the slogan into Trove, I found an ad from The Age, 10 December 1904, for a product called Monkey Brand that used almost exactly the same words: ‘Won’t wash clothes but will clean well metal & woodwork’. It appears that in the ghostsign, the word that has faded to illegibility is ‘Won’t’. I had first thought that the animal figure was a dog, but on closer examination it could indeed be simian.

Monkey brand close up

But why is he dressed as a butler?

Monkey Brand was a popular soap around the turn of the 20th century. It originated in the United States but was bought by Lever Brothers  in 1899 and subsequently produced in the Wirral, near Liverpool in north-west England. Its advertising often used monkey/human hybrids – a series of adverts in London magazines portrayed monkeys as street artists. Here are some remarkable examples of Victorian monkey brand advertising from 1899-1901.

The ghostsign is a vestige of Australia’s Victorian heritage, when British products were imported in huge quantities. But given that Melbourne had its own home-grown soap industry – Velvet soap was one example – I’m guessing there may not have been a massive demand for the imports.

Monkey-soap

Perhaps that’s why this monkey is a rare, maybe even unique sight around Melbourne – are there any more monkey butlers out there?

Who was Dr Morse?

Dr Morse ghostsign

The third sign, perhaps the most enigmatic, is that which appears top left. In white letters, as if in a part-completed crossword puzzle, we can read ‘DR MOR -‘ and ‘IND -‘ At first I thought that was all you can see. But look more closely at the Penfolds sign, and ghostly black letters gradually appear in the background: an N, a large R, a T … When the words come into focus you realise that the sign reads: ‘Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills.’

I’ve had a soft spot for mysterious doctors and patent medicines ever since I researched and wrote about The celebrated Dr King a year or so ago, so I wanted to know more about Dr Morse.

Unlike Dr King, it’s easy to find information about Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills, as it was one of the most long-lasting and successful of the squillions of patent medicines that emerged in America in the 19th century. In fact the brand survived as recently as 1960. Ask your grandparents if they ever had Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills in their bathroom cupboard.

Dr Morse's Indian Root Pills label

They were supposed to cure everything: dyspepsia, constipation, flatulence, scrofula, dysentery and ‘female complaints’.

One reason why Dr Morse’s pills were so successful was the manufacturer’s investment in advertising.  Here’s an example from the Hobart Mercury in 1919, at the height of the influenza epidemic that killed millions worldwide (and saw Melbourne’s Exhibition Building temporarily converted into a hospital and mortuary).

Morse pills advertisement

Hobart Mercury, 25 March 1919. Source: Trove.

(The public may be interested in knowing some of the particulars regarding the part played by Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills in the present epidemic. …. Tens of thousands of bottles of Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills have been sold since the epidemic started. One retail company alone has passed across its counters 5,000 bottles in thirty days.)  

But who was Dr Morse? The company had a heart-warming legend of its origins, printed on the wrapper of every packet, and in almanacs published by the manufacturers.

The story went that Dr Morse was a medical practitioner who completed his training by spending three years among the native Americans (or ‘red men’ as the advertising called them) where he learned all about traditional herbal remedies. This was a common narrative among producers of patent medicines, who often tried to link their products to indigenous knowledge. There was even a brand of hair oil named after Hiawatha.

Here’s what happened when Dr Morse returned home to find his aged father close to death:

‘A rumbling noise was heard in the distance, like a mighty chariot winding its way near, when all at once a fine span of horses, before a beautiful coach, stood before the door, out of which alighted a noble and elegant-looking man. In a moment’s time he entered the room, and embraced the hand of his dear father and mother. She clasped her arms around his neck and fainted away.

The Doctor, surprised to see his father so nearly gone, immediately went to his coach, taking therefrom various plants and roots, which he had learned from the Red Men of the forest as being good for all diseases, and gave them to his father, and in about two hours afterwards he was much relieved … and now we behold him a strong, active man, and in the bloom of health, and at the age of ninety-five able to ride in one day thirty-five miles.’

Pretty powerful stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. If you want to know more, you can read the full story here. Unfortunately, it’s bollocks. No such person as Dr Morse ever existed: the company invented him. Comstocks, a ruthless patent medicine firm with a long list of products, fabricated Dr Morse to ensure that the guy who actually invented the pills did not get his name anywhere near them. The story subsequently became an effective piece of advertising.

So this painted sign on Abbotsford Street is a ghost pointing to a product that no longer exists, named after a man who never lived.

*

Interestingly, the combination of Penfolds Wine and Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills appears on a wall in Surry Hills, Sydney – described here by Vanessa Berry in her blog, Mirror Sydney. Vanessa has also uncovered an old photo from the 1920s of a Dr Morse sign in situ. Check it out.

The history of Dr Morse’s Indian Root Pills, and the Comstock Patent Medicine Business, was written by Robert B Shaw. You can read it here.

A reader, Rick Sidgwick, kindly sent me this curious picture of a group of dancers in Monkey Brand costumes at a fancy dress ball in Bendigo in the 1920s. The picture comes from a book compiled by Peter Ellis. Presumably the ‘monkeys’ are clutching frying pans because that was the kind of thing you could clean with Monkey Brand.

monkey brand no 1

Monkey Brand dancers at a fancy dress ball in Bendigo, 1920s.

Update: I was delighted to come across a reference to the product in Steven Carroll’s fine novel about the Melbourne suburbs, The Art of the Engine Driver: ‘The main street … contains two imposing, double-storey shops, all that remain of the 1880s land boom, when big plans had been made for the area. But the boom never happened as the estate agents had promised, and the shops became dusty and run down, selling Indian Root Pills … and whatever else would keep them going.” (p7)  For Carroll, the presence of Indian Root Pills advertising as late as the 1950s is a marker of the suburb’s lack of progress.

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9 comments

  1. Orwell named his fallen copywriter / failed poet character ‘Gordon Comstock’ after this company … The New Albion ad agency in Keep The Aspidistra Flying’ sought to create new markets for imaginary complaints like ‘pedic perspiration’ …

  2. Oh, I love the histrionics of Dr Morse’s advertising pitch! Runs rings around any of today’s jingles or copy. Rumbling carriages and women fainting away – what’s not to love!

    Another fascinating read, thanks Nick.

  3. Great post Nick. The Indian Root Pills signs were spectacular – usually massive walls with a background of brilliant cobalt blue. Comstocks were innovative and successful marketers, no doubt. There are remnants of Indian Root Pills signs around Melbourne – plus a chicory kiln near Bacchus Marsh and a couple of wall-size ones within a block of each other on Nicholson Street, North Fitzroy…these are now hidden behind new buildings but were both revealed in building works – one a couple of years ago and the other in the early 1990s: http://findingtheradiobook.blogspot.com.au/2013/05/another-large-indian-root-pills-signin.html

  4. The ‘Monkey Brand’ sign is remarkably well preserved. Last year, I took the tram up here to have a look; I also viewed the nearby Maison Brandy sign. On the north-facing wall, there is a very faded Penfolds ghost sign (check Google Maps). Perhaps the south-facing signs are better preserved because they receive much less sunlight? This might also explain why the (few) ghost signs in Sydney are in very poor condition; we receive more intense sunshine (and rain, for that matter) than the culture capital.

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