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Nobody knows precisely when John Wisden had the shrewd idea of accepting advertisements for his Almanack, but certainly by the fourth edition he was using a shameless, illustrated puff for the Catapulta, a primitive form of bowling machine built on the principles of archery. The operator released the ball from a concave bow by cranking a handle. In the 1867 edition, the identity of this mysterious operator is hidden behind the contraption's superstructure, and we catch no more than a glimpse of someone wearing a hat and sporting extravagant sideburns. The Catapulta cost £12, which represented two years' wages for a scullery-maid of the period, although no evidence exists of a scullery-maid ever purchasing one. But this sign that the Almanack was augmenting its income by selling space is misleading. The only customer John Wisden could find was himself; the Catapulta was his own patent. Indeed, even in the first edition of 1864, the back cover was a mere sandwich board for the contents of Wisden's shop in New Coventry Street, among which were Indian clubs, shrinkless flannels for "trowsers and jackets", Electro Registered belts and, symbolically, dumb-bells.
The introduction of advertising represents a smart recovery from a calamitous start. The inaugural edition of 1864 had been a disaster, although today it is the very absurdity of the contents which renders it irresistibly endearing. Like a great many editors then and since, John Wisden, once he had conceived the masterstroke of an annual about the game, had no faint idea what to put into it. The innocent researcher, turning back to that famous first edition, is amazed as well as amused to find there everything from the length of the chief British canals to a disquisition on the constitutional implications of the trial of Charles I. In retrospect, it is surprising that a man witty enough to have dismissed the Atlantic Ocean from his presence with, "What this pitch needs is ten minutes of the heavy roller", should have been so all at sea in a different sense when it came to his Almanack. But he was quick to see the error of his ways, and advertisements were an early sign that he meant business, literally.
At first the advertising concerned only the accoutrements of the game - bats and balls, pads and stumps, gloves and scorebooks. Slowly the range widened. The first signs came with the advent of other sports; puffs for golf balls and clubs, tennis balls and rackets, even offers of cheaply constructed tennis courts. Then followed boxing gloves, running shoes, horse boots, marquees and pavilions. At last the ads crept indoors, and readers were offered full-size billiard tables, a reminder to posterity that once upon a time people lived in houses with rooms spacious enough to accommodate such a luxury. But the insights into Victorian life really begin with the publication of ads quite unconnected with the sporting life.
A casual browse through the 1880s soon discloses home truths unlinked to cricket. In 1883 E. M. Reilly and Co., of Oxford Street, were defining the class structure in the plainest way. Mr Reilly sold sporting guns, and his tariff makes a definite distinction between Gentleman and Player; £7. 10s. for a Naturalist's gun, but only £6. 10s. for a Keeper's gun. Two years later we see the implication that cricket fanciers must also be fishermen. Messrs Hardy of Northumberland announced their new "Carry-All Fishing Basket", with compartments for "a sandwich, cane, flask, tackle, book", and, apparently as an afterthought, "fish".
By 1889 it must have occurred to some bright spark that cricketers occasionally had wives, otherwise why would Neil's, purveyors of Infants' and invalids' food, have placed an ad incorporating a small masterpiece in the art of euphemism: "Babies fed with it thrive equal to those nourished by the Mother. Mothers that take it nourish their Babies as well as themselves." This was the time when a white cashmere shirt could be had for half a guinea and the firm of Epps was offering cocoa which was "not only comforting but grateful". The modern age, unfamiliar with cocoa even in its ungrateful state can only wonder what Mr Epps had come up with.
In 1894 calligraphy entered the ring. To this day the curlicues of the Victorian age inspire awe, so it is no shock to discover that Joseph Collard, of Cranbourne Street, was offering a range of pen-nibs whose glories have long since been buried under a mountain of typewriters, biros and word processors: "The Waverly, Pickwick, Nile, Hindoo, Phaeton, Owl, Flying Scotchman, Flying Dutchman, Big J, Big Waverly, Commercial." A name like Collard was not likely to daunt the prospective buyer. Nor was that of Cox and Yeman, makers of billiard tables for the War Office and the Admiralty, with accessories for the far-flung outposts of Empire: "Tables and Lamps made expressly for India and Extreme Climates." But in the 1896 Wisden there appeared an ad suggesting that the epoch had not yet woken to the fact that there are names and there are warnings, and that to use one when the other would be more appropriate is not good for business. The trussmaker who trumpeted in Wisden his range of "enemas, syringes, pessarit rubber goods, &c." probably went to his grave without realising that the poor response lay in his name: Theodore Skull. At any rate, his entry has disappeared from the pages of the Almanack.
It was the back cover of Mr Skull's edition which painted a more congenial portrait of the extra-sporting life. There we find a comely lady applying something called Exaino to the arm of a mustachioed young man, whose smug expression might suggest a long and intimate relationship with his nurse. To avoid any misunderstandings, the designers of the sketch append the words, "A wifely duty", floating like a halo a few inches above the patient's brilliantined head. By now this style of huckstering was the society norm. Cadbury had pulled off the coup of the age by placing magazine ads showing Queen Victoria sitting in a railway carriage confronted by a cup of the company's cocoa. Bovril had responded by claiming that there were only two infallibles in this uncertain world, and backed the claim with a sketch of the Pope enjoying a cup of the product. Wisden never went to these lengths, but as the new century dawned, the advertising boom was certainly reflected in its pages. Long before then it had appointed an agency to handle applications for advertising space, and by the time Edward VII was crowned, Wisden was carrying two indexes - one for cricket, the other for advertising.
Symbolically, it was the edition heralding the new century which reflect this boom in business. The reader of the 1901 Wisden found himself bewildered by the profusion of choices. If disconcerted by the full pages proclaiming the comforts of the Footballers' Hospital in Manchester, he could console himself with the thought that the Railway Passengers' Assurance Co. (deputy chairman, Sir Spencer Ponsonby-Fane) was offering insurance against injuries sustained on the cricket field. And if all else failed, there was always Mr Weiss of Oxford Street, with his kindly offer of false knee-caps "made of finest plated steel wire, meshed so as to contract and expand with the movement of the knee ... ". Mr Weiss was nothing if not thorough, adding thoughtfully: "In ordering ... state for which leg."
But how might a man mislay his own knee? Possibly through an excess of faith in Messrs Heath and George's Horizontal and Parallel Bars, illustrated with a man of ominously Pooteresque aspect straining to pull wire expanders before him, surely bringing the entire house down about his ears. Still, there was always the Footballers' Hospital, after which, having equipped himself with a false knee-cap out of the money supplied by Sir Spencer Ponsonby-Fane, he could enjoy a soapless, waterless, brushless shave with Euxesis, and then limp along to the Greek Stores in Cranbourne Street, where he could order 500 Egyptian cigarettes at seven shillings per hundred, with his name printed on each one at no extra cost.
By 1903 things were calming down a little, with the peace which passeth all understanding available at the Waterloo Hotel, "within ten minutes of the Oval Cricket Ground. Special terms to Cricket Teams . . . Telegraphic Address:- 'Tuffins Hotel'". But the Waterloo was hopelessly upstaged by the Horns Hotel, which was not only much closer to The Oval but also, according to its proprietor, a Mr Brinkley, possessed the "Best Kitchen in the South of London", dining-rooms which were "overlooking Kennington Park . . . Comfortable Smoking and Billiard Rooms . . . Wines of all best known Brands . . . Cigars of Choicest Crops . . . Iced Munich Spaten Beer on draught". Why, having stumbled on this paradisal watering-hole, bother to leave it for the cricket at all? Similar thoughts must have occurred to the clients of the Peru House Private Hotel in Woburn Place, haven of "Convenience, Quietude, Comfort, and Economy", where a man could find "Electric Light and Bells throughout", meat breakfasts and a telephone, all for 4s. 6d. a night.
A return to the Surrey connection was available with the offer of "Recordine", an "oilless disinfectant embrocation", with an impressive list of endorsers. Among these was Tom Richardson, dismissed elsewhere in the edition as "no longer great", but sought after eagerly enough when it came to Recordine. Poor Tom seems to have done everything with the stuff except drink it for breakfast. He used it for sprains and bruises, and in hot weather he rubbed himself all over with it, before the start of a game and again during the interval. He also claimed that after rubbing his feet with it, he felt cooler.
The claims of the salesmen became steadily more hysterical. In 1904 a very rash gentleman calling himself Professor Szalay, pushing something called Szalay's Developer, claimed that its use would "guarantee a big innings". Three years later we find two gents meeting in the labyrinth of a country house. Both are dressed in shirts of hideous aspect. The monocled one is saying to the mustachioed one: "Mine are not shrunk, as they are "Viyella."' It is not made clear what he is referring to. By 1911 Ivelcon had arrived on the market, a mysterious beverage which contained "many times more nutriment than beef tea", and which would "help you win the game". It is a sad comment on the vigilance of MCC that nobody had the wit to organise a match between the invincible users of Professor Szalay's Developer and the equally invincible swiggers of Ivelcon, each member of the winning side to be awarded an Aermagna shirt, which claimed in 1914 to be "Noted for Durability, Absorbent and Hygienic".
It speaks volumes for Wisden's advertisers that their loyalty to the Almanack remained unshaken by the outbreak of the Great War, and the slamming of the door on a society which had enjoyed comparative peace for a hundred years. By the time the 1915 edition was in the better class of bookshop, the war had been raging for several bloody months. Yet the list of advertisers fills a complete page of the saddest of all editions of Wisden, the wartime edition obliged to array itself in the bright colours of peace, as though nothing had changed. There they all were, the endorsements for bats and balls and pads and gloves, for lawnmowers and marquees, horse boots and squash courts. And of them all, none is more powerfully evocative of a lost time than that on the inside cover, announcing the Sybaritic luxuries of Nevill's Turkish Baths, with outposts all over the town. Any doubts about the probity of the establishment were crushed once and for all with:
Nevill's Turkish Baths are a live and up-to-date concern, the decoration of the bath rooms is tasteful, the attendance prompt and obliging, the shampooers capable and efficient; each establishment is in charge of a competent and experienced manager; the attendants are chosen from the best of their class, and can be relied on for knowledge of their work and readiness to assist the inexperienced bather. The supply of air is scientifically treated and arranged; it is filtered before entering the bath, heated by a scientific apparatus of considerable repute, while the system of ventilation ensures a rapid flow of fresh untainted air through the bathrooms.
Nevill's remained faithful to Wisden throughout the war, but by the 1919 edition only nine advertisers had survived. Like the rest of English life, they had been almost decimated.
No review of the concerns which spent money boosting their products in Wisden would be halfway complete without a mention of its two most memorable advertisers, the one which distinguished itself for artistic endeavour, the other for dogged commercialism in the face of evidence to the contrary. Dr J. Collis Browne must have been a man sorely harassed by the machinations of the scientists. Among the first of John Wisden's customers, the good doctor was pursued down the labyrinth of the century by the relentless advance of medical science. Each time curative discovery took a step forward, so the doctor deftly took a corresponding step back, covering his flanks as best he could with wonderfully impudent bombast like "Important Caution: The immense sale of this remedy has given rise to many unscrupulous imitations. Be careful to observe trade mark." But he must have known there could be only one ending to the dance.
The Chlorodyne ads first began to appear around the time of the Queen's first Jubilee; in the 1894 edition, only months before the discovery of X-rays, Dr Collis Browne was claiming that his potion was "the best remedy known for Coughs, Consumption, Bronchitis, and Asthma"; that it "checks and arrests . . . Diphtheria, Fever, Croup, Ague"; that it "acts like a charm in Diarrhoea" and was "the only specific in Cholera and Dysentery"; that it "cuts short attacks of Epilepsy, Hysteria, Palpitation, and Spasms", and was "the only palliative for Neuralgia, Rheumatism, Gout, Cancer, Toothache, Meningitis".
Slowly the retreat began. In 1903 Meningitis and Ague were dropped from the side and Colic was promoted. By 1913 the doctor had tactfully dropped Coughs, Consumption, Asthma, Diphtheria, Epilepsy and Cancer. Perhaps he was forewarned by the publication in 1911 of Tono-Bungay, H. G. Wells's brilliant exposition of the art of foisting on the public bottles of tonic which do them "only a little harm". But what finally brought about the surrender was neither science nor art, but the Great War. In the 1915 Wisden, Chlorodyne's tattered flag twitches weakly in the winds of war and is then seen no more.
The advertising campaign for Pears Soap was in complete contrast. Although it laid claims to its own indispensability, laughter was never very far away, and there was in addition a genuine attempt to vary the sales pitch from season to season. It was the Pears ads in Wisden which introduced to the great British sporting public the adjective "saponaceous" (meaning soapy). It was Pears again who conducted some of the earliest experiments in understatement; one edition of the Almanack carries a full page which reads simply, "Pears". Among the choicer items in the history of Pears in Wisden are:
"100 Not Out. Centuries are not uncommon in Cricket, but in soap manufacture they are rare indeed. Pears Soap, however, is the Soap of Three Centuries. Invented in the 18th, holding the lead all through the nineteenth and more popular than ever in the 20th. They played cricket in top hats when Pears was young, and cricketers used it then as they do now, and for the same reason, because it is matchless for the complexion." (1895)
"Pears, soapmakers to the King, and holders of the only Grand Prix." (1902)
"A Wonderful Hit. When Cricket was 120 years younger . . . these were the days of 'big hits' in many directions, and the heaviest scorer in toilet soap invention was Pears . . . the World's Top Scorer in Toilet Soaps." (1911)
But Pears' finest hour had come in mid-Edwardian editions of the Almanack. In 1907 Sydney Pardon had shrewdly applied to Punch for permission to reproduce a cartoon by Harry Furniss. It shows a grime-encrusted beggar writing a letter, saying: "Two years ago I used your soap, since when I have used no other!" Furniss, who had been known to write choleric letters to The Times about the advertising hoardings displayed at Lord's, seems to have been happy enough about plugging soap. Probably he was reconciled to this climbdown because a far greater artist's work had been recruited in the same cause only a year before. The inside back cover of the Almanack had depicted a pair of Woosteresque toffs smiling at a hoarding which reads: "Apples Make Cider, but Pears make Soap." Perhaps the smiles are inspired less by the text than by the presence of a statuesque lady, straight out of Toulouse-Lautrec, who is smiling either at the hoarding or at the gentlemen. Underneath this charmingly ambiguous sketch, it says, "Specially drawn for Messrs Pears by the late Phil May". O, my Tuffins and my Euxesis long ago!