Tonic tablets and a gallery of ghosts

Continuing the mini-circuit of North Carlton, I turned left off Lygon Street and headed down Richardson St. At the rear of a small shop on the corner of Rathdowne and Richardson Streets is another beautiful old ghostsign advertising two of the former occupants and one of the products they sold. The sign reads: ‘Ray Chandler Chemist. DeWitt’s Otis Tonic Tablets.’ Very faintly below the word ‘tablets’ you can just about make out ‘Blood & Nerves’. And in white paint at the top, below the name of Ray Chandler, you can see a second name: C. Phillips.

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E.C. De Witt was an American manufacturing chemist of the late 19th-early 20th centuries. His products were evidently available in Australia, and the company had an address in St Kilda.  Several advertisements for DeWitt’s products appeared in newspapers in the 1920s, so it’s possible that the sign dates from around that time too, although De Witt’s in St Kilda continued until at least the 1940s (the firm is listed in my 1946 Sands & McDougall).

Tonic tablets were a ‘special preparation’ supposed to make your nerves stronger and your blood richer. In this fading ad, the words ‘Blood & Nerves’ are faintly visible below ‘Tonic Tablets’ and above the graffiti. DeWitt’s other products – perhaps also found in Ray Chandler’s shop – included Oil of Peace, DeWitt’s Cattarrhal Cream, and Man-Zan, ‘the great pile remedy’, which ‘soothes, heals and cools the inflamed parts’. I would love it if a Man-Zan ghostsign turned up somewhere. Got piles? Use Man-Zan!

Newspaper clip from the Launceston Examiner, 4 October 1923, advertising DeWitt pharmaceutical products

Launceston Examiner, 4 October 1923. Source: Trove.

There was serious money to be made out of pharmaceuticals in the period after World War I. Aspro, developed by Melburnian George Nicholas in 1915, really took off in the post-war years – the company did well out of the flu epidemic of 1919 – and became a globally famous brand, undoubtedly for sale in this shop.

Felton, Grimwade & Co was another very profitable Melbourne drug manufacturer: Alfred Felton’s fortune, left in a bequest to the National Gallery of Victoria, has brought countless major artworks to Melbourne and transformed the NGV into an important gallery. In contrast, DeWitt’s legacy to Melbourne is this sign, a work of art in its own way.

Hoping to put a date to it, I turned to to the State Library of Victoria’s collection of Sands & McDougall directories.  Ray Chandler was in business at 536 Rathdowne Street in 1930, and still there in 1946. But what about C. Phillips, whose name is legible underneath Ray’s? According to Sands & Mac, C. Phillips was the chemist in residence in 1925. Before him there was another chemist, O. Smith – but I see no trace of his name.

So who sold the Otis tonic tablets? It could have been any, or all of them. But my guess is Ray Chandler was the first. The font used for the lettering of his name looks very similar to the lettering of ‘Tonic Tablets’.

I imagine Ray moving into the premises in the late 1920s, the new man, keen to make a splash, and in a fit of enthusiasm agreeing to a full size advertising sign painted onto the back wall of his shop, perhaps talked into it by some smooth Yankee salesman. The years passed, Ray grew older, bottles of tonic tablets were bought and sold, and ultimately surpassed by newer, more fashionable remedies. But the sign stayed, through the years of war, through subsequent decades, after Ray retired or died, and long after Otis Tonic Tablets ceased to exist. The businesses that came later never removed the name or the sign, and there they are, 90 years after they were painted, still giving us a tonic.

From Ray’s chemist shop it’s not far to another superb gallery of ghostsigns, which can be seen on the French patisserie on the corner of Fenwick and Lygon Streets (187 Fenwick Street).

These signs reappeared only a few years ago during renovations, according to Carlton Community History Group, and well done to the building’s owners for recognising what an asset they had uncovered. The advertisements are for Hardy’s Jelly Crystals, Lux Soap, Butterfly Dutch Cocoa (almost weathered away), Electrine Candles (illustrated with a tall thin white candle) and Velvet Soap. The Lux soap advert is accompanied by a rather twee shepherdess tending her flock, and the caption ‘Lux won’t shrink wool’.

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The only other ghostsign I have seen for Electrine candles is on a wall in Kensington, where they were also paired with a Velvet soap sign. Velvet soap signs are a bit more common: I’ve seen quite a few around Melbourne and Victoria.

Velvet Soap ghostsign

Another Velvet Soap fading ad, this time from Fitzroy.

Both Velvet Soap and Electrine candles were made by J. Kitchen & Sons, a successful Melbourne manufacturer of tallow products. Tallow is produced by the noxious process of boiling animal carcasses, and is hence an offshoot of the stock industry. For many years, hundreds of thousands of cattle and sheep were driven into Melbourne for sale, and many of them ended up at local abbatoirs, so there were plentiful resources for companies like Kitchens. It was from the stock industry, via crude extractive industries like production of tallow and fertiliser (from bones) that the city’s chemical industry got started.

While these ghostsigns in North Carlton are in quite good condition, due to having been protected from the elements for many years before the uncovering, they have faded significantly since they were rediscovered. I first photographed them a couple of years ago, when the words ‘Butterfly Dutch Cocoa’ and ‘Lux won’t shrink wool’ were more clearly legible. So go and see them soon (and have a cake and coffee at the patisserie while you are there).

I’m not a believer of restoring ghostsigns, as has occasionally been tried – modern paint is too bright, the colours never match, they end up looking fake. This natural weathering is part of the deal – their transitory nature is part of their identity. The products they advertised have gone, as have the companies who made them. Despite having defied the odds and endured for much longer than they were supposed to, even Velvet Soap will ultimately be washed away.

Our memories will keep them alive a little longer, and the digital record may continue after the paint has weathered away to nothing. In the meantime they hang on, symbols both of transience and survival.

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For more stories about Rathdowne Street, check out the Carlton Community History Group.

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One comment

  1. I used to live at 536B Rathdowne Street (upstairs above the shop). For a few years in the mid-to-late 80s. It was the North Carlton Pharmacy then, run by David Nolte. His wife had her G. P. Practice there too, in the back of that building. Not sure how long it had been a pharmacy but perhaps that’s the reason why this ghost sign has been so well-preserved. It’s not a pharmacy any longer so perhaps this ghost sign will now fade into the historical mists of time……

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