Something I notice again and again as I walk the suburban streets is old advertising for long-gone doctors, medical services and medicines. Whether it’s a Victorian ghostsign on Gertrude Street offering vaccination and tooth pulling, another in the city for ‘the celebrated specialist Dr King’ (who turned out to be a clairvoyant) or faded messages declaring the benefits of products like Otis Tonic Tablets, the suburbs are rich in evidence of the medicinal options of former Melburnians.
One example of a forgotten medicine is Wolfe’s Schnapps. A ghostsign recently appeared on the shell of a Victorian shop at 24 Toorak Road, which is currently in the throes of redevelopment. The word ‘Schnapps’ is fairly clear, but the ‘Wolfe’s’ requires some deduction.
Seeing the name, you might think it’s not a medicine at all, but a type of grog. You’d be right. Wolfe’s Schnapps was ragingly popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries – which is not surprising, as it was basically gin. However, it was promoted for its health benefits.
The Schnapps was manufactured in Holland and marketed with great vigour by an American, Udolpho Wolfe, in the late 19th century. Wolfe claimed that his product was “the purest and most renovating beverage ever manufactured” and millions must have agreed with him as the product was a worldwide success – including in Australia.
Searching for Wolfe’s Schnapps on the National Library’s wonderful website, Trove, I found several photographs of suburban Australian scenes from around 1910 in which advertising for Wolfe’s Schnapps appeared. Here’s a couple from Sydney.
And here’s a Melbourne ad from an uncertain date.
Newspaper advertisements from the turn of the 20th century often carried advertisements such as: “Wolfe’s Schnapps: pleasant, wholesome, pure, is the medicine of all others adapted for the mariner and land traveller.” It was supposed to “purify the blood by increased action of the kidneys”.
Compared with other patent medicines, which often contained substances such as opium, arsenic and even heroin, Wolfe’s Schnapps was probably one of the less harmful products going around. I know I always feel better after a gin and ‘tonic’. (And we still sometimes say “good health” when we drink).
Gradually, over the years, Wolfe’s Schnapps made the transition from being regarded as a medicine to something you drank recreationally. By 1934, it was openly sold in bottle shops, though still with the proviso that it was ‘for your health’s sake’. These days, Wolfe’s bottles are sought after by collectors. (Check them out here.)
There’s a nicely preserved Wolfe’s Schnapps sign on the wall of an old bluestone pub in Kyneton. The white text on a blue background is similar to the Toorak Road sign.
Ghostsign hunter Stefan Schutt spotted the remains of another Wolfe’s Schapps sign in Flemington a couple of years ago – check out the images at his blog. I wonder if there are any more out there?
But what was the building at 24 Toorak Road?
I hunted back through Sands & McDougall’s street directories, hoping to find either a hotel or pharmacy at the address, but there was a succession of small businesses at number 24 – a plumber in 1900, a laundry in 1910, continuing as such for a couple of decades after that. Maybe the advertisers just wanted to make use of a convenient wall in a good location. No doubt there was somewhere nearby to buy the product …
The sign won’t be visible for long – construction work is well under way, and soon the Wolfe’s Schnapps sign will be obscured, leaving only a tiny handful of surviving advertisements of this once ubiquitous ‘tonic’.
Interestingly, we are still debating the health benefits of alcohol – see this article from the ABC. The head of the Winemakers’ Federation of Australia commented: “Wine consumers who drink in moderation have longer, happier, more optimistic, disease-free lives”. Udolpho Wolfe could hardly have put it better.
Heading east along Toorak Road, with its mainly Victorian shop fronts, I reached the former South Yarra post office. Post offices were major sources of local and civic pride to the Victorians and great care was lavished on them. (I passed the famous Flemington post office about a year ago on this walk). This one, like Flemington, was built in the early 1890s – around the time that Wolfe’s Schnapps was popular.
Its most remarkable feature is the decorative motifs of Australian marsupials, emus, lizards, snakes, cockatoos, gumnuts and other flora that adorn it – aspects of the landscape that the inhabitants of South Yarra surely had little contact with. Then as now, you were unlikely to see wallabies bounding along Toorak Road.
At the time the post office was built, Melbourne was in the throes of economic depression – the land boom of the 1880s had crashed spectacularly, and what pundits these days would call ‘consumer confidence’ was at a low point. Banks closed their doors, unemployment rose, and the population of the city dropped by about 50,000. The self-esteem of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ was shattered.
Yet in the midst of the crisis, they managed to build this. Maybe such iconography on a significant public building was meant to foster a sense of national identity in the years leading up to federation in 1901. Perhaps the Australian symbolism was meant to lift the spirits, give people something to believe in in the midst of their gloom, a kind of Wolfe’s Schnapps for the soul. Either way, the sculpture is worthy of admiration.
I wonder, who were the artists who sculpted these subtle and delicate forms? Like the stonemasons who carved Gothic cathedrals, or the skilled signwriters whose works still adorn suburban walls, the people who created this remarkable piece of public art are anonymous. But we see the work of their hands around us as we walk the city streets.
Another echo of Victorian life can be heard not far away, at 62 Commercial Road, Prahran. There’s a row of terraces with the name ‘Duke’s buildings’, built around 1890.
Look closely at the shop second from the right, and ghostly lettering appears.
I’ve been unable to decipher the name(s) across the top. But the ornate text beside the windows reads: ‘Repairs a Specialty. Hand Sewn Boots to Order.’
The style of the lettering suggests the late Victorian era. Looking back through Sands & McDougall, I found that in 1900 the premises was indeed occupied by a bootmaker, William Black. By 1910, Davidson, also a bootmaker, had taken over, and was still there in 1935, by which time the signage would have looked very old-fashioned.
I’ve written before about Melbourne’s boot and shoe production, most of which used to happen in suburbs north of the river such as Clifton Hill and Collingwood. Back in pre-throwaway Victorian times, most locales would have had their own boot repairer.
So let’s see … around the turn of the 20th century you could have popped into Black’s to pick up your hand-sewn boots, strolled up Osborne Street to post a letter and get a burst of patriotic feeling at the post office … then, if your spirits needed a further lift, walked along Toorak Road until you lifted your eyes to the Wolfe’s Schnapps sign. Then, with a bottle of the “most renovating beverage ever manufactured” in your pocket, you could wander happily home down Punt Road …
As I travel the suburbs I imagine countless walkers on their mundane journeys. The streets throng with time-travellers, brought to life by traces on suburban walls.