Brand new exhibition will lift the lid on history’s rogue traders: LEEDM.E.2011.11.51

02 Jan 2024

Brand new exhibition will lift the lid on history’s rogue traders

Abbey House Museum Museums and galleries Arts

Suspect sales tactics employed by crafty companies through history will be exposed in a new exhibition exploring the evolution of advertising.

The Power of Persuasion will cast a critical eye over the spurious claims made by firms of the past, which occasionally landed them in hot water and helped set the strict standards for advertising today.

The exhibition, which will open at Abbey House Museum later this month, will also look at iconic brands from Leeds and beyond which have stood the test of time and cemented their place in history.

Among the stories which feature in the exhibition are the fraudulent claims made by Leeds firm C.E. Fulford Ltd, whose appetisingly named Bile Beans were on sale in the early 1900s.

Supposedly capable of helping with all manner of minor ailments, the beans, which acted as a laxative, purportedly owed their amazing curative properties to a mysterious secret ingredient discovered by a fictional explorer in the heart of Australia.

But when the company was taken to court for fraud in 1904, not only were the miraculous medicinal properties of Bile Beans found to be false, but the company was also forced to admit their “secret ingredient” was in fact nothing more than humble, locally grown rhubarb and liquorice.

Other brands under the spotlight include Vibrona Tonic Wine, made by Fletcher, Fletcher and Co. Ltd in around 1905. 

Marketed as medicinal, and available to buy at chemists rather than licensed premises, tonic wines were in fact extra strong alcoholic drinks, which resulted in many innocent buyers becoming unwittingly intoxicated.

The exhibition also looks at how tobacco was once sold as a health product, with one 1914 snuff company’s advertisement even carrying the slogan “a pinch a day keeps flu away.”

In contrast, other objects on display will look at the stories behind many historic, tried and trusted brands, logos and packaging which have become synonymous with their products.

Also part of the exhibition will be a selection of vintage signs which once adorned the streets of Leeds. These include a giant pair of spectacles which once hung outside the famous Dyons jewellers, founded on The Calls in 1845. The huge glasses were rescued from a skip when the shop was renovated.

Other signs include an eye-catching golden Tetley’s brewery sign and a huge wooden arm and hammer which once advertised a Victorian gold beater’s shop in Leeds.

Kitty Ross, Leeds Museums and Galleries’ curator of social history, said: “The tactics companies have used to try and persuade costumers to part with their money have varied dramatically over the years in line with consumer trends, economics and the way in which advertising itself has been regulated.

“Victorian and early 20th Century companies had a tendency to either wildly exaggerate or outright fabricate the health benefits of their products, often leading to quite outlandish claims which did not stand up to scrutiny.

“With the development of much stricter standards, modern adverts have placed more emphasis either on luxury or value.

“What’s been a consistent, common thread has been the desire to convince customers that your product is the best and most dependable, and it’s the products which have achieved that which have developed that all important brand identity that’s withstood the test of time.”

Other topics which will be explored in the exhibition include beauty, saving money, competitions and prizes and confectionery, which will be displayed in a recreated traditional sweet shop.

Councillor Jonathan Pryor, Leeds City Council’s executive member for economy, culture and education, said: “Leeds has been the birthplace of some truly iconic brands which have helped put the city on the map nationally and around the world.

“It’s fascinating to explore how those brands and others have become part of our history and to see some of the many enthralling objects in our world class collection.”

The Power of Persuasion will open at Abbey House Museum on January 20, 2024.

More details are available at: Abbey House Museum – Leeds Museums & Galleries


For media enquiries contact:

Leeds City Council Communications team