The Bizarre World (but eye-catching advertising art) of British “Bile Beans”

1940s Bile Beans poster, presumed the work of ad agency S.H. Benson

1940s Bile Beans poster, presumed the work of ad agency S.H. Benson

Bile Beans? Really? Who on earth would buy such a product?

Well, as it turns out, quite a lot of people, swayed it seems by canny advertising, despite the dubious and much challenged health claims… And you can still buy a tribute t-shirt thanks to Snow-Home, a shop in York.


Bile Beans, Wikipedia relates, was a “patent medicine” – a laxative and tonic that was sold as glossy black pills, first marketed in the 1890s in the UK.

The product supposedly contained substances extracted from a hitherto unknown vegetable source from Australia, but its alleged inventor, by a chemist called  Charles Forde, was a fiction.

Image via

An original Bile Bean tin.

In their early years Bile Beans were marketed as “Charles Forde’s Bile Beans for Biliousness”, and sales relied heavily on newspaper advertisements. Among other cure-all claims, Bile Beans promised to “disperse unwanted fat” and “purify and enrich the blood”.

The company was exposed for making fraudulent claims in 1905 when it tried to shut down a rival, but that didn’t stop them making the product.


By the early 1930s, advertising for Bile Beans had become increasingly targeted at women, promising them health, bright eyes and a slim figure if taken regularly.

When Radio Luxembourg started longwave commercial radio broadcasts in English in 1933, its first advertisers were Fulford’s Bile Beans and Zam-Buk.

This Bile Beans Women's Auxiliary Air Force Postcard "For Radiant Health And A Lovely Figure" is available as a modern postcard

This Bile Beans Women’s Auxiliary Air Force Postcard “For Radiant Health And A Lovely Figure” is available as a modern postcard

During the 1940s newspaper advertising was supplemented by a poster campaign. Aimed at maintaining high levels of purchasing by women, the posters featured young ladies dressed to participate in various activities, including horse riding, swimming and hiking; the designs were the work of S. H. Benson, a London advertising agency that was absorbed into Ogilvy, Benson, and Mather in 1971, whose clients also included Bovril and Guinness.

Mum Loves Me Now Bile Beans advertisement

Despite their perhaps dubious claims, Bile beans continued to be made until the 1980s. The business was so successful that its final owner Frank Fulford was able to purchase Headingley Castle in Leeds in 1909, and to donate artworks to the museum at Temple Newsam, now run by Leeds City Council.

Ghost signage for Bile Beans in York. Image: ilovetigerplanes

Ghost signage for Bile Beans in York. Image: ilovetigerplanes

A 1940s ‘ghost sign’ advertising Bile Beans, painted on the wall of the delightful-looking  Me & Mrs Fisher Cafe at 18 Lord Mayors Walk, just outside the city walls in York, prompted local design shop Snow-Home to start marketing a t-shirt based on the design in 2014.

 Snow-Home Bile Beans T-Shirt

Snow-Home Bile Beans T-Shirt

“The Bile Beans sign is unique to York, it’s a part of the substance of the city and I wanted to recognise that,” Snow-Home owner Angus McArthur told local paper York Press at the time.

“In a way the t-shirt is a parody of the millions of generic branded t-shirts worn promoting global sports brands and fashion labels. A Bile Beans t-shirt is far more intimate in its appeal, outside of York the effect is diluted.”

My thanks to Peter Gray whose social media post prompted this foray into the world of patent medicine.

• ‘Bile Bean’ – Wikipedia

Bile Beans tin

A History of Patent Medicine 

More Patent Medicine posters, exhibited at Philadelphia Museum in 2011

The Me and Mrs Fisher Cafe

A craft and cake cafe on Lord Mayor’s Walk, York. They make everything (except the bread, supplied by the award winning ‘Haxby Baker’ and delivered daily) on site using fresh and local ingredients where possible. Drop in for fresh scones, cakes and bakes or a light lunch – and sign up for one of their regular craft classes, potter around their haberdashery and gift area


Design shop located at 42 Gillygate, York YO31 7EQ. An independent design store dedicated to sourcing and supplying products with integrity and character, which makes its own products, too

Categories: Art and Illustration, Features

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