GUEST CURATOR: Mary Aldrich
What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Assortment of the best of Medicine, among which are the following, viz. Burlington’s Balsom of Life.”
Robert Turlington’s Balsam of Life was an English nostrum that claimed to contain twenty-seven ingredients. It was patented in England in 1744 with the claim that it could cure kidney and bladder stones, colic, and inward weakness. Turlington’s pamphlet contained testimony from users that a multitude of other ailments would be cured because they took this medicine. In order to appeal to people, Burlington stressed in his pamphlet the natural ingredients he used, specifically balsam, which is “a perfect Friend to Nature, which it strengthens and corroborates when weak and declining, vivifies and enlivens the Spirits, mixes with the Juices and Fluids of the Body and gently infuses its kindly Influence into those Parts that are most in Disorder.”
Patent medicines began in Europe and quickly became a hit, so much so that rivals were almost instantly a problem. Many people were too busy or too poor to go call the doctor; these “cure alls” were perfectly marketed to these people. And the multitude of products all advertising as being the best kept the price of them down to some extent.
For more, see George B. Griffenhagen and James Harvey Young’s Old English Patent Medicines in America.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Some histories of advertising in America suggest that little was advertised – with the exception of patent medicines – in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Adverts 250 Project, on the other hand, regularly demonstrates the diversity of goods and services marketed in colonial America, including, on occasion, the patent medicines that have given early American advertising such a bad reputation.
Mary discusses a 46-page pamphlet that Turlington published in England in hopes of convincing potential customers to choose his Balsam of Life over the medicines offered by a host of competitors. Colonial merchandisers sometimes distributed similar pamphlets, but did not engage in newspaper advertising for patent medicines to the same extent as in England because the American market did not have the same surplus of such products. Newspaper advertisements in colonial period tended to mention patent medicines only by name, without expounding on their contents or promised effects (as seen in today’s featured advertisement). This shifted a bit after the Revolution. In the wake of a greater number of newspapers being published, as well as many expanding to multiple issues each week, more space for advertising became available. Newspaper advertising for patent medicines became more extensive after the Revolution, sometimes including the same sorts of testimonials that Turlington used to promote his Balsam of Life in his original pamphlet from the 1740s.
In Old English Patent Medicines in America, Griffenhagen and Young describe advertisements in the colonies as “drab” compared to those in London and the English provinces. Note, however, that Josiah Gilman offered one innovative marketing method: “Customers may depend on being served as well by sending as if present themselves.” In other words, Gilman offered an early form of mail order shopping. Customers did not need to visit his shop in person. Instead, they could select which items listed in the advertisement that they wished to purchase and send for them.