The catchphrase Alas! my poor brother originated in an advertising slogan for Bovril, the proprietary name of a concentrated beef extract invented in 1889 by John Lawson Johnston (1839-1900)—cf. also the birth of some 19th-century advertising catchphrases.
The following advertising card for Bovril dates from the 1890s. One side shows two bullocks, one saying to the other “I hear they want more Bovril”:
The other side shows, on the right, one bullock only (the other having ended up as the product) looking down at a jar of Bovril and lamenting “Alas! my poor brother”; the text on the left is:
With “Bovril” in the House one has at hand ready assistance in time of sickness—a friend in need when strength and flavour are required for the soup, hash, or stew.
A cup of hot “Bovril” makes a nourishing lunch and an ideal light supper. “Bovril” invigorates when one feels faint, gives energy and vitality when one is run down. “Bovril” is the highest type of nourishment in its most agreeable and most easily digested form.
Creative Commons, Public Domain Mark—source: Wellcome Library
The earliest mention of this advertisement that I have found is from an article about the advertisers’ exhibition at the Niagara Hall, Westminster, London, published on Monday 24th April 1899 in The Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, County Antrim, Ireland):
The Avenue Press of 32, Bridge Street, London, E.C., have on view a large colour printing machine. It was in operation turning out a pictorial poster representing a bullock gazing sorrowfully at a bottle of bovril, underneath the illustration being “Alas, my poor brother.”
This slogan was one element only of Bovril pioneering approach to advertising, as exemplified in the following from the Liverpool Mercury, and Lancashire, Cheshire, and General Advertiser (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Tuesday 14th November 1899:
Bovril Fireworks Display.—There are many methods of advertising, but surely one of the most novel and successful was that adopted by the proprietors of the famous meat extract known as “Bovril.” For the past few weeks every Liverpool purchaser of a bottle of this essence was presented with a ticket entitling the holder to view a grand pyrotechnic display at the Edge-lane Grounds. No fewer than 25,000 free tickets were issued, and probably the majority of these were represented in the vast crowd which assembled at the rendezvous last evening. The programme was one of exceeding variety, and included specimens of nearly every variety of firework, from the common cracker and rocket to the ingenious and magnificent set-piece. The colours introduced were kaleidoscopic, and the display, which occupied about one hour, with ever-changing scenes, was greatly appreciated by the delighted spectators. One of the most successful of the devices was that said to be descriptive of the naval brigade firing their guns at Ladysmith. There were twelve large set-pieces, a striking display being the firework representation of the well-known Bovril poster “Alas! my poor brother!” The brass band belonging to Father Nugent’s Boys’ Home played selections of music during the display.
The advertising slogan Alas! my poor brother rapidly became a popular catchphrase, as mentioned in the Weekly Irish Times (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Saturday 30th October 1909:
A FAMILIAR POSTER.
Conversation nowadays is alleged to be nothing more than a medley of catch-phrases. Classical “tags” have been replaced by pantomime gags and advertisement legends, while instead of poetical images, the common coin of illustration is the modern poster. As an interjection, “Eheu! fugaces”1 has been supplanted by “Alas! my poor brother.” An instance of the effect such a reference can make occurred in the King’s Bench Division the other day, when some remarks by a counsel touching the well-known Bovril poster caused much amusement in court. A baker claimed damages for personal injury “caused by negligent extraction of 22 teeth,” and one element in his claim was the fact that he had had to obtain, by doctor’s orders, a large supply of Bovril to pull up his strength. Counsel commented on the vigorous appearance of the plaintiff in the box, and said that if the plaintiff had consumed so much of this popular beef beverage, he would not be surprised if the manufacturers produced a poster depicting the magnificent ox gazing down, not at a “Poor brother” concentrated into a small bottle, but upon the plaintiff, swelled to tremendous proportions with the Bovril he had consumed.
1 The Latin phrase eheu fugaces labuntur anni translates as alas! the fleeting years slip by. It is a quotation from Odes, 2, 14, by the Roman poet Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus – 65-8 BC).
The advertisement for Bovril was often parodied. For example, the following is from an advertisement for C. R. Stevens & Sons, shoemakers, published in The Wiltshire Times and Trowbridge Advertiser (Trowbridge, Wiltshire, England) of Saturday 1st August 1908. It shows a cow, crying and looking down at a pair of boots:
Alas! my Poor Brother!
(With apologies to Bovril.)
The catchphrase is used as an adjective in the following paragraph from the Kent & Sussex Courier (Tunbridge Wells, Kent, England) of Friday 10th June 1927:
IN A BOOT SHOP.—During the quiet part of Tuesday afternoon two cows that were being driven through Calverley-road suddenly turned and entered the shop belonging to the Dolcis Shoe Company at Nos. 50-52. The scared assistants watched, from their corners, the somewhat noisy inspection of the shop by the intruders, one of which slid down the mat, but, beyond knocking a few things over, no harm was done, and the cows, no doubt realising that another destiny besides “Bovril” awaited them, decided to obey the drover’s command to “’Bout turn.” They emerged from the shop with an “alas-my-poor-brother” air about them, and resumed their journey.
The Bovril slogans came to constitute a category of their own, which led to the invention of the word Bovrilism. The Lincolnshire Standard (Boston, Lincolnshire, England) of Saturday 6th March 1926 reported that, during the annual meeting of the Bovril Company, George Lawson Johnston (1873-1943), second son of John Lawson Johnston, declared:
The Bovril Company could claim to be pioneers in most forms of advertising. During 1925, more Bovril “slogans” had been manufactured than during any previous ten years. In an interesting article2 on the “hearty” note in Bovril advertising, one newspaper instanced the topical posters shown on the London ’buses, such as:
“Bovil [sic] will carry you further than the bus,”
“With Bovril inside you can sit outside,”
“Thank Bovril for goodness,”
“Add Bovril to your midday fare.”
and stated that some of the more picturesque “Bovrilisms” were passing into history, such as the famous “Alas, my poor brother.”
2 This refers to “One Grin Is Worth a Thousand Shudders” The Hearty Note in Bovril Advertising—Some Reflections on the Humorous Half Pages of the Winter Campaign, by Gordon Freame, published in The Advertiser’s Weekly (London, England) of 8th January 1926.