A Promise in a Cup!

This Ovaltine/Ovaltineys advertisement dates back to 1936.

This Ovaltine/Ovaltineys advertisement dates back to 1936.

The ubiquitous tin advertisements on railway stations in our youth proclaimed the message succinctly: ‘Virol. Growing Girls Need It.” I never understood the message as an intrigued schoolboy. Why not growing boys? And what would “it” do? Just another adult esoteric mystery – there seemed to be so many in those days of innocence.

Health products and hot comforting cuppas in particular were big business in the 1920s and 1930s, and one has the image of the whole population retiring every night with their bedtime beverages. The inventive and imaginative techniques utilised to sell the products makes fascinating reading in the pages of pre-war magazines.

Thousands of children were enrolled in those days as Ovaltineys, a clever marketing device to entice children into the malt extract drink habit. The League of Ovaltineys, run by the Chief Ovaltiney, recruited children to use health signs and codes – almost Masonic for tiny tots. A 1930s advertisement clearly illustrates the use of a secret sign from a small girl on her bicycle to a passing boy. To an outsider (I was never an Ovaltiney, just a Teddy Tailer) the esoteric sign message appears to be achieved by forming an ‘O’ with the thumb and forefinger.

The proprietors sold the products as a “nutritious element to build sturdy bodies, sound nerves and abundant vitality”. Ovaltine was also advertised as a positive boon to enable mothers to breast-feed their babies. They even brought in our old advertising friend “A Nurse Writes…” But Ovaltine was sold principally as a good bedtime drink and the assault on children was strongly abetted by the production of their own children’s comic and the heavy use of Britain’s only commercial radio station, Radio Luxembourg.

A constant pre-war advertiser was Horlicks, the eternal malted milk drink “ready in a moment with hot or cold water”. The advertising was strong on building body and brain, promising stamina and a bright future. They tapped a rich and constant vein with strip-cartoon stories of children who were lackadaisical and never really well. (“I think she’s outgrowing her strength”). Their lives were transformed with a course of Horlicks at bedtime. As the advertising copy warned in 1931: “There are over one million undernourished children in England. Is your child one?” For many years Horlicks also ran their famous campaign for adults featuring the perils of Night Starvation – when you could lose your job or family happiness due to the lack of a good night’s sleep.

Some hot drinks were sold simply as a pleasant day to round off the day before climbing the stairs. Bournville was such a comforter, but Benger’s went for the more medicinal approach: indigestion and strain needed “rest therapy”, so a cup of the steaming beverage was better than a meal and “gave your digestion an evening off’.

From the folk who gave us Post Toasties and Grape Nuts, which graced a million breakfast tables in the 1930s, came Instant Postum, yet another bedtime drink bursting with health claims. In fact, in an early example of ‘knocking copy’, Postum claimed that “unlike most good drinks, it doesn’t bring the reaction of nerves, sleeplessness and indigestion”. Here was a new drink – a “warm, golden-brown fluid which tastes like creamy toffee. Gorgeous stuff!” The Instant Postum formula was wheat bran, sugar-free molasses converted into “sparkling granules that dissolve instantly in boiling water to make a drink as innocent as childhood itself.”

The dominant big guns of the nightcap business, though, were the beefy ones – Oxo, Bovril and Beefex. The Oxo cube was born in 1910, immediately described by the manufacturers as the greatest advance in food invention since men began to eat and women learned to cook.

Although the principal use was culinary, the Oxo cube became a simple and quick nightcap, promulgated in the teeth of all opposition health claims as “removing that tired feeling, quieting the nerves and the best tonic in the world for a good night’s sleep”. Today’s veggies will shudder at the proud 1927 claim that “some 500,000 cattle,

including what are probably the largest herd of pure-bred Herefords in the world, assure a constant supply of prime beef for the presentation of Oxo.”

Bovril fought Oxo for the high ground with their famous advertising, including the celebrated pyjama-clad figure on a huge floating bottle with the timeless slogan “Bovril Prevents That Sinking Feeling”.

The lesser-known Beefex, represented by a child in a beefeater’s hat, strongly recommended their drink for winter nights. And Torox, from the beef suet people Atora, modestly acclaimed their drink as the World’s Best Beverage.

Bournville Cocoa for children gave “A Toy in Every Tin’; Fry’s Malted Milk Cocoa was “Food out of a Cup”; Van Houten’s was the cocoa that charmed “millions for a century with its perfect flavour” and other contenders were Coleman’s Vitacup, Wincarnis and Marmite.

So the advertising battle went on, conveniently untrammelled in those unregulated days by the strictures of the Advertising Standards Authority. Many of the products are still with us today, competing with the twilight pleasures of coffee and tea. Nescafe made its appearance in 1939, making a big impact on the instant drinks front.

Perhaps Field Marshal Montgomery was a welcome copy-writer for the beefy bevvy cause when he declared: “I am sure you will be glad to know that the assaulting troops that crossed the Rhine in the moonlight on March 23rd 1945 all had a drink of Bovril before starting.”

So with the words of the full Monty ringing in my ears, I’m off to bed with my steaming cuppa. Well, we growing boys need it!

Brian Braithwaite