:: The articles in this series were originally
:: published in Daniella Thompson on Brazil.


The Boeuf chronicles, Pt. 23

On patent medicines and the
art of tie-in advertising.

Daniella Thompson

1 October 2002

Vermutin launch ad (Gazeta de Notícias, 17 February, 1917)

Patent medicines have been around since the 15th century or earlier, making their way from Europe to the Americas as the colonies were populated in the 1600s. These concoctions, purported to cure all ills, were often sold by itinerant salesmen to poor folk who had no access to or couldn’t afford to consult a physician.

The remedies’ ingredient lists could be very impressive. Dr. Kilmer’s Swamp Root Kidney Liver and Bladder Cure, for example, contained Buchu leaves, Oil of Juniper, Oil of Birch, Colombo Root, Swamp-Sassafras, Balsam Copaiba, Balsam Tolu, Skullcap leaves, Venice Turpentine, Valerian Root, Rhubarb Root, Mandrake Root, Peppermint herb, Aloes, Cinnamon, and sugar. In addition, it contained approximately 9% to 10.5% alcohol.

Alcohol worked wonders—at least at first—as can been seen in Gaetano Donizetti’s opera L’elisir d’amore (1832), in which a hapless young lover’s quest for the elixir of love brings forth the traveling patent-medicine salesman Dr. Dulcamara, who sells him a bottle of wine.

The patent-medicine industry flourished during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Scott Jordan, who collects antique patent-medicine bottles, summarizes the story neatly:

Many of the patent medicines contained alcohol (many of them were almost entirely alcoholic) and narcotics (such as morphine, cocaine and opium). These products certainly made the patient feel better for a time, but ran quite a bit short of their claims of being wonder cures for diseases ranging from the common cold to tuberculosis. The federal legislations of the early 20th century, both in the U.S. and Canada, in which manufacturers could not make false promises about their products, and had to list the ingredients in their bottles and pill boxes, served to bring about the near death of the entire industry. Some products did, however, continue to be sold well into the 1950s and beyond. Some of them are still available today, but in greatly altered form.

As long as the inclusion of intoxicants was legal, the business was lucrative enough for manufacturers to spread their operations far and wide. Dr. Kilmer & Company (they of the Swamp Root Kidney Liver and Bladder Cure) had branch offices in New York, Chicago, Rio de Janeiro, and Kingston, Jamaica.

Needless to say, Dr. Kilmer was not the only patent-medicine manufacturer in Brazil. Perhaps the best-known and longest-lived Brazilian patent medicine was Biotônico Fontoura, created by the pharmacist Cândido Fontoura in 1910 as an antianemic whose slogan was Ferro para o sangue e fósforo para os músculos e nervos. The brand name was coined by the pharmacist’s friend, the writer Monteiro Lobato, whose Almanaque do Jeca Tatu (also known as Jeca Tatuzinho), published by Laboratório Fontoura & Serpe, helped market the tonic by communicating its features and benefits in simple words.

The most successful campaign in the history of Brazilian advertising

Monteiro Lobato’s Almanaque depicted the transformation of the caboclo Jeca Tatu and his family from a thin, pallid, and sad lot into healthy and happy folk, all thanks to trying Biotônico Fontoura. One bit of information the Almanaque most likely did not divulge was the fact that the tonic contained 9.5% alcohol—not just for the first few decades of its market life, but for the full 91 years. It wasn’t until April 2001 that the government agency Anvisa (Agência Nacional de Vigilância Sanitária) published a list of medicinal fortifiers whose manufacture had been prohibited owing to their alcohol content.

“The most complete fortifier”

Tune No. 23: “Seu Amaro Quer” (1918)

“Seu Amaro Quer” is a tango carnavalesco by F. Soriano Robert, whose samba “Olh’ Abacaxi!” (also from 1918) was the seventh tune quoted in Le Boeuf sur le Toit.

Although the piano score proclaims “Seu Amaro Quer” to have been “O Maior sucesso do carnaval de 1918,” only one recording of the song—the sole one for this composer—is listed in Fundação Joaquim Nabuco’s database:

Autor: Soriano Robert
Título: Seu Amaro Quer?
Gênero: Tango
Intérprete: Bloco dos Parafusos
Gravadora: Odeon
Número: 121449

The catalog number puts it in the same series as another carnaval tune released by Odeon: “O Boi no Telhado,” no. 121432.

Section A of “Seu Amaro Quer” may be heard at 12:57 min. into Louis de Froment’s recording of Le Boeuf sur le Toit, where it’s played in counterpoint with Tune No. 24, the tango “Sertanejo” by Carlos Pagliuchi (1919) and Tune No. 25, the samba “Para Todos” by Eduardo Souto & Norberto Bittencourt “K. K. Reco” (1919). “Seu Amaro Quer” returns at 13:30 minutes.

Reading from the original piano score, Alexandre Dias plays the same section in this excerpt from his recent recording, made especially for the Boeuf chronicles.

What have patent medicines to do with a tango carnavalesco? Well might you ask. F. Soriano Robert seems to have had an interest in advertising. The title of “Olh’ Abacaxi!” is a street vendor’s cry that has more recently come to take on the pejorative sense of a shady sales scheme. “Seu Amaro Quer,” on the other hand, is a sales pitch in the guise of a carnaval song. And what it’s selling is an alcohol-laden concoction (some call it a drink, others a patent medicine) by the name of Vermutin, one of many such preparations to be found in those days (Rhum Creosotado, Elixir de Nogueira, Elixir de Inhame Goulart, Vinho Reconstituinte Silva Araújo were others).

Vermutin was launched during the carnaval of 1917 with a heavy advertising campaign in the Brazilian press. It promised to improve apetite and digestion, fortify the nerves, and provide overall well-being and rejuvenation. Its slogan was “The best drink in the world.”

Vermutin launch ad (Jornal das Moças, 22 February, 1917)

In the piano score of “Seu Amaro Quer,” the Vermutin logotype is printed just under the song title and in the same size. Below, much smaller, are the genre description and the author’s name. The product name is woven into each verse and each refrain. You’ll notice that the score makes clear that the tango is the property of Dr. Eduardo França. França owned the Lugolina laboratory and factory in Avenida Mem de Sá, Rio de Janeiro. Lugolina was the manufacturer of Vermutin, and Dr. França made it his business to advertise the product regularly in made-to-order popular songs—the jingles of yesteryear. To ensure their popularity, he organized the first-ever carnaval song competition in 1919, in which one of his jingles, not surprisingly, took top prize (read more about this and other songs advertising Vermutin here).

What is causing all this mirth?

Seu amaro quer...
Tango Carnavalesco
F. Soriano Robert
Propriedade reservada do Dr. Eduardo França
Tango Carnavalesco—O Maior sucesso do carnaval de 1918
Dançado com exito sensacional no RESTAURANT ASSYRIO pelos celebres maxixeiros Margot e Milton
Cantado e dançado pela graciosa artista LOLA BRIEBA, na revista carnavalesca de grande successo MOMO TÁ-HI no Theatro Republica

Venha cá,
Venh' olhar,
Que seu amaro quer
As cebolas com feijao...
Venha cá,
Venh' a mim,
Que seu amaro quer
P'ra ter força na exportação

2º e 4º

Vamos todos dançar,
Vamos todos sambar,
Que... seu amaro quer
O Vermutin... assim... assim...
Assim... Assim... Ay!

2º D.C. todo [repeat from the beginning]

Como é bom beber! Ay!

Venham todos,
Venham ver,
Que seu amaro vai
Aos juizes de Berlim...
Venham todos
Vêr o fim...
Que seu amaro quer
P'ra tocar o bandolim...

A shocking question

And the sales pitch isn’t over yet, for both the score’s front and back covers are elaborately illustrated with drawings that seem to be related to the product and to each other. What are the four gentlemen on the front cover laughing about? Could it be the effeminate man on the back cover who appears shocked at the young lady’s question? Why is she saying “Seu amaro quer Vermutin...?” when he is already holding a glass of liquor? Is she suggesting a more fortifying substitute? And why is amaro consistently spelled with a lower-case a? Is it not the man’s name? Or does he not perhaps deserve an initial capital for reason of not being a full he-man? The four laughing men—none of them a spring chicken—are all virile specimens full of vim and vigor, no doubt thanks to a steady regimen of Vermutin.

The lyrics suggest that Vermutin provides strength. Is there an implied promise that it would transform the effeminate into a macho? Beyond the commercial message, there’s also an allusion to world politics in the line P'ra ter força na exportação and again in Recorrer/Aos juizes de Berlim. The year was 1918, and Germany was losing WWI.

It is also worth remembering that during the 1918 carnaval at which “Seu Amaro Quer” was released, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro was Amaro Cavalcanti. Apparently this gentleman was somewhat of a despot, as may be inferred from his strict regulations on bathing at Copacabana and Leme beaches, enacted in October 1917: “Bathing will be allowed from 2 April to 30 November from 6 am to 9 am and from 4 pm to 6 pm. From 1 December to 31 March, from 5 am to 8 am and from 5 pm to 7 pm. On Sundays and holidays, another hour will be allowed in each period.” The popular expression “Seu Amaro Quer” said all about Cavalcanti’s temperament.

While various questions about the song remain to be answered, one conclusion to be drawn from the Vermutin advertising campaign is that Dr. França and Lugolina targeted a more upscale audience than did Laboratório Fontoura with its Almanaque do Jeca Tatu. This was only natural, considering that caboclos did not possess pianos or gramophones and were therefore unlikely to buy sheet music or records.

= = =

If you’d like to dig a little into the history of patent medicines, here are a few sources:

  • Library of Congress
  • Bartleby.com
  • University of Toledo
  • I’m indebted to Alexandre Dias for the piano score illustrations (obtained from the Fundação Joaquim Nabuco) and to Adalberto Carvalho Pinto for scanning them.


    More on Vermutin


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