Shilling Sherlock (223B Casebook)

Copyright and trademark laws were much looser in Conan Doyle’s time. So, as Sherlock Holmes grew popular, advertisers would shanghai the consulting detective for their own uses. This kind of unauthorized affinity marketing is still used today, but back in the day makers of patent medicines, safes and safety razors saw no problem making Holmes the star of their advertising campaigns.

The Case of the Dubious Doctor

A very unattractive ad, but still state-of-the-art for small-town newspapers in 1899. This one had the added attraction of appearing on the front-page.

Dr. R.V. Pierce ad, 1899, Owego, N.Y. newspaper

Googling the doctor’s name revealed a surprise. Dr. Pierce was one of the nation’s biggest marketers of patent medicines. Most of them were stuffed with opium and alcohol which provided much in the way of relief but little curative powers. He was a far more effective marketer than doctor. He advertised his nostrums nationwide, in magazines, on billboards, even painted on the sides of barns.

AD-R.V.-PierceHe seems to radiate self-confidence from this photo. You’d rather he try to bottle that.

Naturally, he opposed the Food and Drug Act, and successfully sued a magazine that revealed the contents of one of his medicines. But he inadvertently did some good: His book, “The People’s Common Sense Medical Advisor,” inspired the “Physicians’ Desk Reference” in use today.

He built himself a pretty impressive hospital, too, in Buffalo, N.Y. A streetcar line has taken over Main Street, but it looks like the building isn’t there anymore. Pity, because you can see why patients could feel comforted arriving there.

Dr. R.V. Pierce's Invalids Hotel Buffalo NY

Another building constructed in his time down the street is still there, with his name engraved in front.


Dr. Pierce’s medicines made him a fortune, and his son took over the business upon his death in 1914 and kept it going into the 1940s.

Holmes and the Sleepless Watchman

This pastiche was used to sell a special type of safe equipped with a way to record who used a particular key to open it at a particular time. This allowed the owner to keep track of who opened the safe when. It was produced by International Mfg. Company of Columbus, Ohio, a business which seemed to specialize in duplicating itself. Google shows the same name for business in Ann Arbor, Baltimore, Toledo, and D.C.

Anyway, here’s the story. Mentions “The Red-Headed League,” too.


Capping the story is a lovely image of Holmes, so I cleaned it up. One of those little mysteries is the name of the artist. You wonder if he read the stories. Probably did, since he got the look right. Or, maybe it was just another job. Get it done, get it out, go on to the next one. Never suspecting, more than a century later, it would be preserved as a curiosity, worthy of admiration.