Advertising car for Ovomaltine in the 1930s.
Company archives of Wander AG

From the pharmacy to the supermarket shelf

Ovomaltine (also sold as Ovaltine) is a popular breakfast drink. It was invented by a chemist, and to begin with it was only available in pharmacies.

The malt preparation was touted as an “invigorating tonic for anaemics, for those suffering from mental or physical exhaustion, and for lactating and ‘delicate’ women”. That’s how Albert Wander, a Bern-based manufacturer of chemical products and maltose, advertised his latest product in 1904 in the Wochenschrift für Chemie und Pharmazie, Switzerland’s weekly publication on the chemicals industry and pharmaceuticals. Barley malt extracts were only a minor line of business, though painstakingly developed by the founder of the chemical and analytical laboratory, Georg Wander (1841-1897). His son Albert, more of an entrepreneur than an inventor, began systematically expanding the business after his father’s death. At the turn of the century, the steadily expanding Wander AG was producing pills, tablets, granules, ointments and suppositories to alleviate all conceivable ailments, but also processed foodstuffs, flavoured cordials, dentifrices, baby powder and all manner of fine-sounding cosmetic preparations – all of which had made the name Wander well known among pharmacists and their customers the length and breadth of the country. Wander AG had fingers in so many pies that by 1940 the company had more pharmaceutical products on the market than the Basel-based Sandoz.

Ovomaltine originally sold only in pharmacies

Despite the company’s great success with pills and pastes, the ambitious owner was eager to forge ahead with the traditional core business, malt products. He felt that he would easily get bogged down with the general store merchandise based on his specialities – malt to aid digestion, malt with iodine, malt with bromine to fight whooping cough, malt with cod liver oil, or as a round candy. What he had in mind was a universal tonic: a nourishing elixir for the healthy and the ailing, for young and old, for athletes and couch potatoes. In lengthy experiments, the chemists at Wander AG succeeded in mixing the malt extract with milk, egg, yeast and cocoa, and preserving it so that the nutrients were retained. The breakthrough came in 1903, first as Maltosan, and a year later as ‘Ovomaltine’ (later sold in some countries as Ovaltine). The new invigorating tonic and nutritious elixir was initially sold only in pharmacies. From 1922, Wander AG positioned its flagship product, through targeted advertising, as a breakfast drink and a nightcap for an increasingly body- and health-conscious public.

The first Ovomaltine tin from 1904 didn’t yet feature the characteristic orange colour.
Company archives of Wander AG

Even the military were interested in Ovomaltine. The drink has a long shelf life and takes up very little space in a field pack.
Company archives of Wander AG

Cross-country skiing competition in Le Brassus, 1955. Portrait of Benoît Carrara with Ovomaltine.
Swiss National Museum

Sales of the drink tripled. Albert Wander, who offered his nourishing elixir to a global market, set to work before the First World War on developing an Ovomaltine empire. The Wander Company was created in Illinois (USA), Etablissements Wander was created in France, and Wander Limited was established in London, which operated a large factory in Hertfordshire. In quick succession, production sites and offices were established in Budapest, Vienna, Prague and Zagreb – to name just a few. Ovomaltine became the byword in health tonics for the active individual.

So it’s not surprising that in 1937 Switzerland’s War Commissariat, the Eidgenössische Kriegskommissariat, asked Wander AG to develop a nutritious snack for the troops. High in the mountains the snack was to be capable of replacing a meal, and it also needed to be suitable for storage so that it could be used as an ‘emergency food supply for all’. The result was ‘Militär-Ovomaltine’, which was later marketed as Ovo Sport. From then on, there was hardly a sporting event in Switzerland that didn’t feature Ovo advertising. Pelé and Muhammad Ali, champion skiers, Waffenlauf participants and Tour de Suisse winner Ferdy Kübler extolled the virtues of the universal tonic. Mount Everest conqueror Sir Edmund Hillary even had Ovo in the rucksack he was carrying on his famous ascent. All these people went a long way thanks to hard training and Ovomaltine, claimed Wander’s advertising department in the 1950s.

In 1967 Sandoz AG of Basel took over its former competitor. In 2002, Wander AG merged with a UK food company, which many Swiss people saw as selling a piece of their heritage.

History of Ovomaltine in a short documentary.
YouTube

Ovomaltine advertising from 1965.
YouTube

American Ovomaltine advertising from the 1950s.
YouTube

Gabriel Heim
Gabriel Heim is a book and film author and exhibition organiser. He is principally concerned with research into topics of modern and contemporary history and lives in Basel.

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