The pharmaceutical firm Burroughs, Wellcome & Company was founded in London in 1880 by the American-born entrepreneurs Silas Burroughs (1846-95) and Henry Wellcome (1853-1936).
They registered the name Tabloid (with capital initial) on 14th March 1884, as a trademark for concentrated drugs and medicines in tablet form. (It remains a proprietary name to this day.)
The firm applied the name to other products, such as compressed tea. The following is from The Banbury Advertiser (Oxfordshire) of 14th February 1895:
Messrs. Burroughs, Wellcome, and Co., Snow Hill Buildings, London, E.C., has forwarded to us a sample of their “tabloids” of pure compressed tea. Delicacy of flavour and uniformity of strength are some of the advantages of the “tabloids,” two or more of which (according to taste), with boiling water, produce a cup of delicious tea in a few seconds. Tea “tabloids” will be found most convenient for travellers, tourists, &c., as owing to their extremely small bulk a number sufficient for fifty or a hundred cups can be carried in the waistcoat pocket without bulging, and their economy is beyond question when it is stated that sixpence will obtain a hundred “tabloids.”
It is generally said that the word tabloid is from tablet and the suffix -oid denoting form or resemblance — as in asteroid and ovoid. But, according to the Wellcome Trust¹, tabloid was coined by blending the words tablet and alkaloid.
Burroughs, Wellcome & Co. did all they could to protect their trademark. They were vigilant to the extent of persuading the editor of The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (New York, 1895) to amend the definition of the word, which was:
tabloid (tab´loid), n. [< table + -oid.] A tablet; a small troche, usually administered by the mouth or, after solution, hypodermically. [Recent.]
After the firm’s intervention, the definition was as follows in the 1897 edition:
tabloid (tab´loid), n. [< table + -oid.] Something resembling a table or tablet; a tablet: applied only (and as a trade-mark) to certain small troches, usually administered by the mouth, or, after solution, hypodermically.
In 1903, the company brought an action — known as the Tabloid case — in the High Court against Thompson & Capper, owners of multiple chemist shops in Liverpool and Manchester, for infringement of the trademark. Mr Justice Byrne ruled that the name Tabloid was legally restricted to the products of the plaintiffs:
I do not think that it [= the name Tabloid] can be said to have been other than a “fancy word” as applied to goods in the class in which it was registered.
However, Burroughs, Wellcome and Co. had to accept that tabloid had become common property — provided that did not interfere with their trademark rights; the judge ruled:
There is one peculiarity in the case I must mention. The word “Tabloid” has become so well known and appreciated in consequence of the use of it by the Plaintiff firm in connection with their compressed drugs that I think it has acquired a secondary sense in which it has been used, and may legitimately be used so long as it does not interfere with their trade rights. I think the word has been so applied generally with reference to the notion of a compressed form or dose of anything, from literary education and household dwellings, and sometimes also, perhaps, as denoting a bi-convex form of drug, and various works, including numbers of “Punch²,” have been referred to showing such use of the word.
At this point, Mr Justice Byrne adds a very interesting comment about language; he says that A. J. Walter, appearing for the defendants,
ingeniously suggested that the Plaintiff firm have sought to rob the English language by preventing its natural development in endeavouring to appropriate such a word as “Tabloid,” which he puts as being a natural development of the word “Table” or “Tablet;” but I think it is more correct to say that the Plaintiff firm have made a gift, such as it is, to the language, while reserving a special use of it to themselves.
Examples of this “gift to the language” are numerous. The noun tabloid came to be generally applied to a compressed or concentrated version of something; as an adjective, it came to mean compressed, concentrated, especially in order to be easily assimilated. (The word is now chiefly used with reference to newspapers.)
The following is from The Bournemouth Daily Echo (Dorset) of 21st April 1903:
A ROMANCE IN TABLOID.
They are holding a short recitative competition in the “Referee,” and the following is among the “poems”:—
And The Aeroplane (London) of 11th December 1913 had:
In response to earnest enquirers the small speedy Sopwith biplane has been nicknamed the “Tabloid” because it contains so many good qualities in such small compass, and also because it is such a concentrated dose of medicine for certain gentlemen at the Royal Aircraft Factory. One hopes that Messrs. Burroughs Wellcome and Co., ever good friends to aviators, will not consider the nickname an infringement of their trade mark.
photograph of the Sopwith biplane from The Aeroplane of 3rd July 1913
The Irish author Frank Frankfort Moore (1855-1931) made a sarcastic use of tabloid in They Call It Love (Philadelphia, 1895). (In the novel, “Silas H. Hoffinstein, of Sardanapalus City, Michigan State,” is “the greatest living inventor”.):
“And you intend to exploit these inventions of your friend at Sardanapalus City, Miss Larkspur.”
“[…] The time-saving tabloids will, I think, do well in Britain. I mean to introduce them.”
“If they provide one with an extra hour or so a day, I would gladly negotiate with you for a supply,” said Mr. Cosway.
“There is the breakfast tabloid, the dinner tabloid, the afternoon-tea tabloid, and the supper tabloid,” said Miss Larkspur. “It’s calculated—on the prospectus—that every man in the States spends a quarter of an hour over his breakfast, seven minutes over his dinner—that’s a little too high for most Americans—and ten minutes over his supper. In Britain I understand the time spent—especially by the titled classes—over their meals is even longer than is mentioned in this computation.”
“Well, that’s my idea too,” said Mr. Cosway.
“The longer the time the greater the need for the tabloids,” said Miss Larkspur. “Each tabloid contains all the ingredients necessary for a healthy meal—breakfast, dinner, afternoon tea, or supper, as the case may be. Well, on this system a man can breakfast while he’s shaving. He simply puts the tabloid into his mouth, and when it melts he has had his breakfast. The business man can dine in a minute and a half at his bureau while talking into his phonograph. He can take his afternoon-tea tabloid while going home on the El.”
“I beg your pardon—on the El?” said Mr. Cosway.
“The El—the Elevated Track, sir. What a roundabout way the British take to express themselves.”
“Yes; you see we haven’t got the talking tabloid here,” remarked Lily. “The tabloid that gives you a whole phrase in a monosyllable.”
“Not but what it’s needed,” said Miss Larkspur. “We’ll discover that yet in the States. Give us time.”
“You’ve discovered it long ago,” laughed the girl. “Then the time-saving tabloids will make dinners unnecessary?”
“My dear missy, the introduction of the tabloid will sweep away every meal. A dinner-party will be unknown. A dining-parlour will be a thing of the past. But, best of all, the cook will be abolished. She has had her day. She’ll be found crushed beneath one of Hoffinstein’s Tabloids.”
“You think they’ll be popular in England?” asked Minna.
“Why shouldn’t they be? Won’t they save every man, woman, and child at least an hour a day—more, if you take the titled classes into account? Are you British chained to your dinner-tables?”
“Miss Larkspur,” said Lily, “I think it my duty to tell you that your praiseworthy attempt to introduce the tabloid into English domestic life would bring about your assassination within a week. You don’t seem to be aware that the dinner in England is the centre on which our social life revolves. If we want to show honour to a great poet—we don’t often, but if we do, we give him a dinner. If a Cabinet Minister has a secret to reveal to the world, he reveals it over a table at which pineapples have taken the place of sirloins. What is it that causes a husband to come home to his family after a hard day’s work? Why, the dinner. Miss Larkspur, no anarchist with bombs sticking out of every pocket is half as great an enemy to society as you with the time saving tabloids in your hand-bag.”
“You’ve got the bulge on me there, I own,” said Miss Larkspur, after a pause. “Well, if the tabloid won’t catch on, what do you say to Hoffinstein’s Automatic Hostess?”
¹ According to Gilbert Macdonald in One hundred years: Wellcome: in pursuit of excellence (The Wellcome Foundation Limited – London, 1980), the name Tabloid came to Henry Wellcome “at half-past four one morning in 1884 by combining the word tablet and alkaloid, and he at once sent for his secretary to dictate, even at that early hour, a memorandum on the subject”.