It was my uncle’s genius that did it. No doubt he needed me,—I was, I will admit, his indispensable right hand; but his was the brain to conceive. He wrote every advertisement; some of them even he sketched. You must remember that his were the days before the Time took to enterprise and the vociferous hawking of that antiquated Encyclopedia. That alluring, button-holing, let-me -just-tell-you-quite-soberly-something-you-ought-to-know style of newspaper advertisement, with every now and then a convulsive jump of some attractive phrase into capitals, was then almost a novelty. “Many people who are moderately well think they are quite well,” was one of his early efforts. The jerks in capitals were, “DO NOT NEED DRUGS OR MEDICINE,” and “SIMPLY A PROPER REGIMEN TO GET YOU IN TONE.” One was warned against the chemist or druggist who pushed “much-advertised nostrums” on one’s attention. That trash did more harm than good. The thing needed was regimen—and Tono-Bungay!
Very early, too, was that bright little quarter column, at least it was usually a quarter column in the evening papers: “HILARITY—Tono-Bungay. Like Mountain Air in the Veins.” The penetrating trio of questions: “Are you bored with your Business? Are you bored with your Dinner. Are you bored with your Wife?” —that, too, was in our Gower Street days. Both these we had in our first campaign when we worked London south central, and west; and then, too, we had our first poster—the health, beauty, and strength one. That was his design; I happen still to have got by me the first sketch he made for it. I have reproduced it here with one or two others to enable the reader to understand the mental quality that initiated these familiar ornaments of London.
(The second one is about eighteen months later, the germ of the well-known “Fog” poster; the third was designed for an influenza epidemic, but never issued.)
These things were only incidental in my department.
I had to polish them up for the artist and arrange the business of printing and distribution, and after my uncle had had a violent and needless quarrel with the advertising manager of the Daily Regulator about the amount of display given to one of his happy thoughts, I also took up the negotiations of advertisements for the press.
We discussed and worked out distribution together first in the drawing-room floor in Gower Street with my aunt sometimes helping very shrewdly, and then, with a steadily improving type of cigar and older and older whisky, in his smuggery at their first house, the one in Beckenham. Often we worked far into the night sometimes until dawn.
We really worked infernally hard, and, I recall, we worked with a very decided enthusiasm, not simply on my uncle’s part but mine, It was a game, an absurd but absurdly interesting game, and the points were scored in cases of bottles. People think a happy notion is enough to make a man rich, that fortunes can be made without toil. It’s a dream, as every millionaire (except one or two lucky gamblers) can testify; I doubt if J.D. Rockefeller in the early days of Standard Oil, worked harder than we did. We worked far into the night—and we also worked all day. We made a rule to be always dropping in at the factory unannounced to keep things right—for at first we could afford no properly responsible underlings—and we traveled London, pretending to be our own representatives and making all sorts of special arrangements.
But none of this was my special work, and as soon as we could get other men in, I dropped the traveling, though my uncle found it particularly interesting and kept it up for years. “Does me good, George, to see the chaps behind their counters like I was once,” he explained. My special and distinctive duty was to give Tono-Bungay substance and an outward and visible bottle, to translate my uncle’s great imaginings into the creation of case after case of labelled bottles of nonsense, and the punctual discharge of them by railway, road and steamer towards their ultimate goal in the Great Stomach of the People. By all modern standards the business was, as my uncle would say, “absolutely bona fide.” We sold our stuff and got the money, and spent the money honestly in lies and clamour to sell more stuff. Section by section we spread it over the whole of the British Isles; first working the middle-class London suburbs, then the outer suburbs, then the home counties, then going (with new bills and a more pious style of “ad”) into Wales, a great field always for a new patent-medicine, and then into Lancashire.
My uncle had in his inner office a big map of England, and as we took up fresh sections of the local press and our consignments invaded new areas, flags for advertisements and pink underlines for orders showed our progress.
“The romance of modern commerce, George!” my uncle would say, rubbing his hands together and drawing in air through his teeth. “The romance of modern commerce, eh? Conquest. Province by province. Like sogers.”
We subjugated England and Wales; we rolled over the Cheviots with a special adaptation containing eleven per cent. of absolute alcohol; “Tono-Bungay: Thistle Brand.” We also had the Fog poster adapted to a kilted Briton in a misty Highland scene.
Under the shadow of our great leading line we were presently taking subsidiary specialties into action; “Tono-Bungay Hair Stimulant” was our first supplement. Then came “Concentrated Tono-Bungay” for the eyes. That didn’t go, but we had a considerable success with the Hair Stimulant. We broached the subject, I remember, in a little catechism beginning: “Why does the hair fall out? Because the follicles are fagged. What are the follicles? . . . ” So it went on to the climax that the Hair Stimulant contained all “The essential principles of that most reviving tonic, Tono-Bungay, together with an emollient and nutritious oil derived from crude Neat’s Foot Oil by a process of refinement, separation and deodorization. . . . It will be manifest to any one of scientific attainments that in Neat’s Foot Oil derived from the hoofs and horns of beasts, we must necessarily have a natural skin and hair lubricant.”
And we also did admirable things with our next subsidiaries, “Tono-Bungay Lozenges,” and “Tono-Bungay Chocolate.” These we urged upon the public for their extraordinary nutritive and recuperative value in cases of fatigue and strain. We gave them posters and illustrated advertisements showing climbers hanging from marvelously vertical cliffs, cyclist champions upon the track, mounted messengers engaged in Aix-to-Ghent rides, soldiers lying out in action under a hot sun. “You can go for twenty-four hours,” we declared, “on Tono-Bungay Chocolate.” We didn’t say whether you could return on the same commodity. We also showed a dreadfully barristerish barrister, wig, side-whiskers, teeth, a horribly life-like portrait of all existing barristers, talking at a table, and beneath, this legend: “A Four Hours’ Speech on Tono-Bungay Lozenges, and as fresh as when he began.” Then brought in regiments of school-teachers, revivalist ministers, politicians and the like. I really do believe there was an element of “kick” in the strychnine in these lozenges, especially in those made according to our earlier formula. For we altered all our formulae—invariably weakening them enormously as sales got ahead.
In a little while—so it seems to me now—we were employing travelers and opening up Great Britain at the rate of a hundred square miles a day. All the organisation throughout was sketched in a crude, entangled, half-inspired fashion by my uncle, and all of it had to be worked out into a practicable scheme of quantities and expenditure by me. We had a lot of trouble finding our travelers; in the end at least half of them were Irish-Americans, a wonderful breed for selling medicine. We had still more trouble over our factory manager, because of the secrets of the inner room, and in the end we got a very capable woman, Mrs. Hampton Diggs, who had formerly managed a large millinery workroom, whom we could trust to keep everything in good working order without finding out anything that wasn’t put exactly under her loyal and energetic nose. She conceived a high opinion of Tono-Bungay and took it in all forms and large quantities so long as I knew her. It didn’t seem to do her any harm. And she kept the girls going quite wonderfully.
My uncle’s last addition to the Tono-Bungay group was the Tono-Bungay Mouthwash. The reader has probably read a hundred times that inspiring inquiry of his, “You are Young Yet, but are you Sure Nothing has Aged your Gums?”
And after that we took over the agency for three or four good American lines that worked in with our own, and could be handled with it; Texan Embrocation, and “23—to clear the system” were the chief. . . .
I set down these bare facts. To me they are all linked with the figure of my uncle. In some of the old seventeenth and early eighteenth century prayerbooks at Bladesover there used to be illustrations with long scrolls coming out of the mouths of the wood-cut figures. I wish I could write all this last chapter on a scroll coming out of the head of my uncle, show it all the time as unfolding and pouring out from a short, fattening, small-legged man with stiff cropped hair, disobedient glasses on a perky little nose, and a round stare behind them. I wish I could show you him breathing hard and a little through his nose as his pen scrabbled out some absurd inspiration for a poster or a picture page, and make you hear his voice, charged with solemn import like the voice of a squeaky prophet, saying, “George! list’n! I got an ideer. I got a notion! George!”
I should put myself into the same picture. Best setting for us, I think, would be the Beckenham snuggery, because there we worked hardest. It would be the lamplit room of the early nineties, and the clock upon the mantel would indicate midnight or later. We would be sitting on either side of the fire, I with a pipe, my uncle with a cigar or cigarette. There would be glasses standing inside the brass fender. Our expressions would be very grave. My uncle used to sit right back in his armchair; his toes always turned in when he was sitting down and his legs had a way of looking curved, as though they hadn’t bones or joints but were stuffed with sawdust.
“George, whad’yer think of T.B. for sea-sickness?” he would say.
“No good that I can imagine.”
“Oom! No harm trying, George. We can but try.”
I would suck my pipe. “Hard to get at. Unless we sold our stuff specially at the docks. Might do a special at Cook’s office, or in the Continental Bradshaw.”
“It ’ud give ’em confidence, George.”
He would Zzzz, with his glasses reflecting the red of the glowing coals.
“No good hiding our light under a Bushel,” he would remark.
I never really determined whether my uncle regarded Tono-Bungay as a fraud, or whether he didn’t come to believe in it in a kind of way by the mere reiteration of his own assertions. I think that his average attitude was one of kindly, almost parental, toleration. I remember saying on one occasion, “But you don’t suppose this stuff ever did a human being the slightest good all?” and how his face assumed a look of protest, as of one reproving harshness and dogmatism.
“You’ve a hard nature, George,” he said. “You’re too ready to run things down. How can one tell? How can one venture to tell! . . . ”
I suppose any creative and developing game would have interested me in those years. At any rate, I know I put as much zeal into this Tono-Bungay as any young lieutenant could have done who suddenly found himself in command of a ship. It was extraordinarily interesting to me to figure out the advantage accruing from this shortening of the process or that, and to weigh it against the capital cost of the alteration. I made a sort of machine for sticking on the labels, that I patented; to this day there is a little trickle of royalties to me from that. I also contrived to have our mixture made concentrated, got the bottles, which all came sliding down a guarded slant-way, nearly filled with distilled water at one tap, and dripped our magic ingredients in at the next. This was an immense economy of space for the inner sanctum. For the bottling we needed special taps, and these, too, I invented and patented.
We had a sort of endless band of bottles sliding along an inclined glass trough made slippery with running water. At one end a girl held them up to the light, put aside any that were imperfect and placed the others in the trough; the filling was automatic; at the other end a girl slipped in the cork and drove it home with a little mallet. Each tank, the little one for the vivifying ingredients and the big one for distilled water, had a level indicator, and inside I had a float arrangement that stopped the slide whenever either had sunk too low. Another girl stood ready with my machine to label the corked bottles and hand them to the three packers, who slipped them into their outer papers and put them, with a pad of corrugated paper between each pair, into a little groove from which they could be made to slide neatly into position in our standard packing-case. It sounds wild, I know, but I believe I was the first man in the city of London to pack patent medicines through the side of the packing-case, to discover there was a better way in than by the lid. Our cases packed themselves, practically; had only to be put into position on a little wheeled tray and when full pulled to the lift that dropped them to the men downstairs, who padded up the free space and nailed on top and side. Our girls, moreover, packed with corrugated paper and matchbook-wood box partitions when everybody else was using expensive young men to pack through the top of the box with straw, many breakages and much waste and confusion.
As I look back at them now, those energetic years seem all compacted to a year or so; from the days of our first hazardous beginning in Farringdon Street with barely a thousand pounds’ worth of stuff or credit all told—and that got by something perilously like snatching—to the days when my uncle went to the public on behalf of himself and me (one-tenth share) and our silent partners, the drug wholesalers and the printing people and the owner of that group of magazines and newspapers, to ask with honest confidence for £150,000. Those silent partners were remarkably sorry, I know, that they had not taken larger shares and given us longer credit when the subscriptions came pouring in. My uncle had a clear half to play with (including the one-tenth understood to be mine).
£150,000—think of it!—for the goodwill in a string of lies and a trade in bottles of mitigated water! Do you realise the madness of the world that sanctions such a thing? Perhaps you don’t. At times use and wont certainly blinded me. If it had not been for Ewart, I don’t think I should have had an inkling of the wonderfulness of this development of my fortunes; I should have grown accustomed to it, fallen in with all its delusions as completely as my uncle presently did. He was immensely proud of the flotation. “They’ve never been given such value,” he said, “for a dozen years.” But Ewart, with his gesticulating hairy hands and bony wrists, his single-handed chorus to all this as it played itself over again in my memory, and he kept my fundamental absurdity illuminated for me during all this astonishing time.
“It’s just on all fours with the rest of things,” he remarked; “only more so. You needn’t think you’re anything out of the way.”
I remember one disquisition very distinctly. It was just after Ewart had been to Paris on a mysterious expedition to “rough in” some work for a rising American sculptor. This young man had a commission for an allegorical figure of Truth (draped, of course) for his State Capitol, and he needed help. Ewart had returned with his hair cut en brosse and with his costume completely translated into French. He wore, I remember, a bicycling suit of purplish-brown, baggy beyond ageing—the only creditable thing about it was that it had evidently not been made for him—a voluminous black tie, a decadent soft felt hat and several French expletives of a sinister description. “Silly clothes, aren’t they?” he said at the sight of my startled eye. “I don’t know why I got’m. They seemed all right over there.”
He had come down to our Raggett Street place to discuss a benevolent project of mine for a poster by him, and he scattered remarkable discourse over the heads (I hope it was over the heads) of our bottlers.
“What I like about it all, Ponderevo, is its poetry. . . . That’s where we get the pull of the animals. No animal would ever run a factory like this. Think! . . . One remembers the Beaver, of course. He might very possibly bottle things, but would he stick a label round ’em and sell ’em? The Beaver is a dreamy fool, I’ll admit, him and his dams, but after all there’s a sort of protection about ’em, a kind of muddy practicality! They prevent things getting at him. And it’s not your poetry only. It’s the poetry of the customer too. Poet answering to poet—soul to soul. Health, Strength and Beauty—in a bottle—the magic philtre! Like a fairy tale. . . .
“Think of the people to whom your bottles of footle go! (“I’m calling it footle, Ponderevo, out of praise,” he said in parenthesis.)
“Think of the little clerks and jaded women and overworked people. People overstrained with wanting to do, people overstrained with wanting to be. . . . People, in fact, overstrained. . . . The real trouble of life, Ponderevo, isn’t that we exist—that’s a vulgar error; the real trouble is that we don’t really exist and we want to. That’s what this—in the highest sense—just stands for! The hunger to be—for once—really alive—to the finger tips! . . .
“Nobody wants to do and be the things people are—nobody. You don’t want to preside over this—this bottling; I don’t want to wear these beastly clothes and be led about by you; nobody wants to keep on sticking labels on silly bottles at so many farthings a gross. That isn’t existing! That’s—sus—substratum. None of us want to be what we are, or to do what we do. Except as a sort of basis. What do we want? You know. I know. Nobody confesses. What we all want to be is something perpetually young and beautiful—young Joves—young Joves, Ponderevo” —his voice became loud, harsh and declamatory—“pursuing coy half-willing nymphs through everlasting forests.” . . .
There was a just-perceptible listening hang in the work about us.
“Come downstairs,” I interrupted, “we can talk better there.”
“I can talk better here,” he answered.
He was just going on, but fortunately the implacable face of Mrs. Hampton Diggs appeared down the aisle of bottling machines.
“All right,” he said, “I’ll come.”
In the little sanctum below, my uncle was taking a digestive pause after his lunch and by no means alert. His presence sent Ewart back to the theme of modern commerce, over the excellent cigar my uncle gave him. He behaved with the elaborate deference due to a business magnate from an unknown man.
“What I was pointing out to your nephew, sir,” said Ewart, putting both elbows on the table, “was the poetry of commerce. He doesn’t, you know, seem to see it at all.”
My uncle nodded brightly. “Whad I tell ’im,” he said round his cigar.
“We are artists. You and I, sir, can talk, if you will permit me, as one artist to another. It’s advertisement has—done it. Advertisement has revolutionised trade and industry; it is going to revolutionise the world. The old merchant used to tote about commodities; the new one creates values. Doesn’t need to tote. He takes something that isn’t worth anything—or something that isn’t particularly worth anything—and he makes it worth something. He takes mustard that is just like anybody else’s mustard, and he goes about saying, shouting, singing, chalking on walls, writing inside people’s books, putting it everywhere, ‘Smith’s Mustard is the Best.’ And behold it is the best!”
“True,” said my uncle, chubbily and with a dreamy sense of mysticism; “true!”
“It’s just like an artist; he takes a lump of white marble on the verge of a lime-kiln, he chips it about, he makes—he makes a monument to himself—and others—a monument the world will not willingly let die. Talking of mustard, sir, I was at Clapham Junction the other day, and all the banks are overgrown with horse radish that’s got loose from a garden somewhere. You know what horseradish is—grows like wildfire—spreads—spreads. I stood at the end of the platform looking at the stuff and thinking about it. ‘Like fame,’ I thought, ‘rank and wild where it isn’t wanted. Why don’t the really good things in life grow like horseradish?’ I thought. My mind went off in a peculiar way it does from that to the idea that mustard costs a penny a tin—I bought some the other day for a ham I had. It came into my head that it would be ripping good business to use horseradish to adulterate mustard. I had a sort of idea that I could plunge into business on that, get rich and come back to my own proper monumental art again. And then I said, ‘But why adulterate? I don’t like the idea of adulteration.’”
“Shabby,” said my uncle, nodding his head. “Bound to get found out!”
“And totally unnecessary, too! Why not do up a mixture—three-quarters pounded horseradish and a quarter mustard—give it a fancy name—and sell it at twice the mustard price. See? I very nearly started the business straight away, only something happened. My train came along.”
“Jolly good ideer,” said my uncle. He looked at me. “That really is an ideer, George,” he said.
“Take shavin’s, again! You know that poem of Longfellow’s, sir, that sounds exactly like the first declension. What is it?—‘Marr’s a maker, men say!’”
My uncle nodded and gurgled some quotation that died away.
‘Jolly good poem, George,” he said in an aside to me.
“Well, it’s about a carpenter and a poetic Victorian child, you know, and some shavin’s. The child made no end out of the shavin’s. So might you. Powder ’em. They might be anything. Soak ’em in jipper,—Xylo-tobacco! Powder’em and get a little tar and turpentinous smell in,—wood-packing for hot baths—a Certain Cure for the scourge of Influenza! There’s all these patent grain foods,—what Americans call cereals. I believe I’m right, sir, in saying they’re sawdust.”
“No!” said my uncle, removing his cigar; “as far as I can find out it’s really grain,—spoilt grain. . . . I’ve been going into that.”
“Well, there you are!” said Ewart. “Say it’s spoilt grain. It carried out my case just as well. Your modern commerce is no more buying and selling than sculpture. It’s mercy—it’s salvation. It’s rescue work! It takes all sorts of fallen commodities by the hand and raises them. Cana isn’t in it. You turn water—into Tono-Bungay.”
“Tono-Bungay’s all right,” said my uncle, suddenly grave. “We aren’t talking of Tono-Bungay.”
“Your nephew, sir, is hard; he wants everything to go to a sort of predestinated end; he’s a Calvinist of Commerce. Offer him a dustbin full of stuff; he calls it refuse—passes by on the other side. Now you, sir you’d make cinders respect themselves.”
My uncle regarded him dubiously for a moment. But there was a touch of appreciation in his eye.
“Might make ’em into a sort of sanitary brick,” he reflected over his cigar end.
“Or a friable biscuit. Why not? You might advertise: ‘Why are Birds so Bright? Because they digest their food perfectly! Why do they digest their food so perfectly? Because they have a gizzard! Why hasn’t man a gizzard? Because he can buy Ponderevo’s Asphalt Triturating, Friable Biscuit—Which is Better.’”
He delivered the last words in a shout, with his hairy hand flourished in the air. . . .
“Damn clever fellow,” said my uncle, after he had one. “I know a man when I see one. He’d do. But drunk, I should say. But that only makes some chap brighter. If he wants to do that poster, he can. Zzzz. That ideer of his about the horseradish. There’s something in that, George. I’m going to think over that. . . . ”
I may say at once that my poster project came to nothing in the end, though Ewart devoted an interesting week to the matter. He let his unfortunate disposition to irony run away with him. He produced a picture of two beavers with a subtle likeness, he said, to myself and my uncle—the likeness to my uncle certainly wasn’t half bad—and they were bottling rows and rows of Tono-Bungay, with the legend “Modern commerce.” It certainly wouldn’t have sold a case, though he urged it on me one cheerful evening on the ground that it would “arouse curiosity.” In addition he produced a quite shocking study of my uncle, excessively and needlessly nude, but, so far as I was able to judge, an admirable likeness, engaged in feats of strength of a Gargantuan type before an audience of deboshed and shattered ladies. The legend, “Health, Beauty, Strength,” below, gave a needed point to his parody. This he hung up in the studio over the oil shop, with a flap of brown paper; by way of a curtain over it to accentuate its libellous offence.