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Tabloid medicines

Advertisement for Tabloid medicine chests, early 1900s.

Advertisement for Tabloid medicine chests, early 1900s.

Credits:Wellcome Library, London.

The word ‘tabloid’ now refers to something which is compact or smaller than usual - it is most commonly used to describe newspapers. But the origin of the word is medical; in fact, it was created by Henry Wellcome to help him sell pharmaceutical drugs.

Wellcome was looking for a strong brand name, so that his customers would recognise his products immediately. He created the word ‘tabloid’ to describe a new type of tablet in which powder was compressed down into a small tablet. This made it easier to control the dose of medicines, and the tablet was easier to store and to take.

In 1884, Wellcome registered ‘Tabloid’ as a trademark, which meant that only his firm Burroughs Wellcome & Co. could use the term. The word was such a success that all of the company's products were marketed as Tabloid. Customers could buy Tabloid tea, Tabloid photography supplies and Tabloid first-aid kits, as well as Tabloid medicines.

Wellcome was an excellent salesman, and often gave his Tabloid products away, for instance providing famous explorers with medicine chests to take on their journeys.

By 1903 the company’s attempts to stop others using the word tabloid to describe something small or compressed failed. The judge in its legal case argued that, by then, the word had entered the general language.


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