The Man with a Fish on His Back: Science, Romance, and Repugnance in the Selling of Cod-Liver Oil

Early cod-liver advertisement

One of the earliest images of the man with a fish on his back appeared around 1884 on advertising trade cards. Image courtesy of the National Museum of American History Collections, Smithsonian Institution.

Even the most steadfast proponents of cod-liver oil, such as de Jongh and Bennett, admitted that the highly disagreeable taste and smell presented a significant hurdle to its use. In 1873 Alfred B. Scott came to New York City and, along with partner Samuel W. Bowne, began experimenting to produce a less nauseating preparation of cod-liver oil. Three years later they established the firm of Scott and Bowne, and began marketing their product as Scott’s Emulsion. Though not a doctor or pharmacist by training, Scott had the eye for opportunity that was necessary for achievement in business. Advertising, the two men believed, would propel their product to success. And so it did: by the 1890s Scott and Bowne had factories in Canada, England, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and France, and advertised their emulsion throughout the Americas, Europe, and Asia.

Scott procured his oil for Scott’s Emulsion directly from the Lofoten Islands, a long chain located above the Arctic Circle and the world center of cod fishery. As Möller whimsically described the islands in Cod Liver Oil and Chemistry:

The islands are inhabited by the Maelstrom, the Midnight Sun, and a few people “of no importance.” They are also largely visited by callers belonging to three quite distinct grades of society. First, the tourist (var. Brit., Amer., et Germ.); secondly the cod-fish (var. G. morrhua); and lastly the Norwegian fisherman, who has no particular Latin name, but is a very decent fellow notwithstanding.

“As Palatable as Milk”

De Jongh believed the problem of palatability could be surmounted with a little perseverance or “a little preserve for children, some fruit, a biscuit, or a drop of Bordeaux or Sherry wine.” Despite such assurances, much discussion and advice revolved around overcoming the nauseating taste and smell. Often the oil was mixed into coffee, milk, or brandy; some recommended taking the oil with smoked herring, tomato ketchup, or in the froth of malted beverages. Those with an “insurmountable aversion to the taste” could take the oil by enema.

Scott and Bowne carefully distinguished their tastier product from other “secret” remedies, openly publishing the formula in early advertising: “50 per cent. of Pure Cod Liver Oil, 6 grs. of the Hypophosphites of Lime, and 3 grs. of the Hypophosphites of Soda to a fluid ounce. Emulsified with mucilage and Glycerine.” The mucilage used was probably gum acacia. The glycerine added sweetness and was also thought to have tonic and healing properties. The hypophosphites of lime (calcium) and soda (sodium) were considered helpful in the treatment of consumption.

Scott and Bowne’s first trademark, registered in 1879, included the initials P.P.P. and three words—“Perfect, Permanent, Palatable.” The mark reflected their perfect formula; a permanent emulsion, that is, one that would not separate; and most important, a palatable one. One advertisement proclaimed, “You do not get the taste at all; because the little drops of oil are covered over in glycerine, just as pills are covered in sugar or gelatine.” “Palatable as milk” became a key tagline in Scott’s advertising.

The man with the fish on his back first appeared on Scott’s Emulsion around 1884 and became Scott and Bowne’s trademark in 1890. As Scott told it, he saw this fisherman with his record-breaking catch while on business in Norway. A photographer was quickly found to record the scene; later the photo was faithfully reproduced and registered as the company’s trademark. Trade cards and booklets featured the fisherman and his catch along with the words, “Scene taken from life on the coast of Norway” and “This Codfish, weighing 156 pounds, was caught off the coast of Norway.” The realistic image, a direct reference to the natural source of the medicine, served as a reassurance of quality in a marketplace of adulterated goods. Man and fish also evoked the romance and myth of the sea and the fisherman, who procures the bounty of the sea.