GUEST CURATOR: Megan Watts
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“DRUGS and Medicines of the very best Kinds.”
This advertisement caught my attention because it is unique. In reading colonial newspapers I have not seen many advertisements for medical supplies. This one includes “Syringes of all kinds” and “Bateman’s Drops,” among other things.
The advertisement made me wonder about the realities of health in the 1700s. Colonists tried to do what we still strive for now, to live a healthy life. However, that was much more difficult to do in the 1700s. Fewer medical discoveries, poor hygiene practices, and contamination of water sources contributed to an unfavorable health environment. In eighteenth-century America a mild illness could turn into a fatal ailment. Diseases, like yellow fever, were always a threat and could cause epidemics.
One example of a disease causing havoc happened in Philadelphia in the late 1700s. As Simon Finger notes, “At the end of the eighteenth century, Philadelphia found itself in the grip of an implacable horror, wracked by ‘the hurricane of the human frame.’ Yellow fever loomed like the storm.” The spread of illnesses wreaked havoc on the population. Not only were residents dying from illnesses, but the economy was also affected. Finger further states that: “yellow fever returned to terrorize Philadelphia six more times, taking thousands of lives, paralyzing the port economy, and sowing the seeds of a panic.”
Americans now have access to properly educated doctors, hygiene education, and clean water sources. In 2016, not many people are worried about a lethal cough or a yellow fever epidemic occurring. However, it is important to recognize the unhealthy environment colonists lived in and the health threats they faced, as it was one of the characteristics of the 1700s.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Peter Roberts offered a variety of conveniences for customers who purchased his “DRUGS and Medicines of the very best Kinds.” Like many other druggists (as well as some shopkeepers), he provided mail order service for those who were unable to visit his shop “opposite the West Door of the Court-House Boston.” In a nota bene he announced that “Orders by Letters from Practitioners and others, in Town or Country, will be as faithfully complied with as if they were present.”
Roberts offered another convenience less commonly promoted in eighteenth-century advertisements. Before listing the various remedies and medical equipment he stocked, the druggist stated that he “carefully prepares and puts up in the best Manner, DOCTOR’s BOXES of all sizes, with proper Directions, for Ships or private Families.” In other words, Roberts produced and sold the early modern equivalent of the first aid kit. Given that customers could choose boxes of “all sizes,” Roberts most likely allowed them to choose specific items they wished included. On the other hand, some customers probably preferred readymade boxes that included the most popular and commonly used items, leaving it to the druggist to make the selections based on his experience and expertise.
While these “DOCTOR’s BOXES” represented a convenience for his customers, they presented an opportunity for Roberts, an opportunity to increase sales and move inventory more quickly. Customers purchased individual items from Roberts and other druggists as they needed them or in anticipation of need. When Roberts assembled one these boxes, however, he could include various products that customers were less likely to select on their own or that they were less likely to imagine that they might need at some point. He could include items that customers were much less likely to purchase separately but that they would accept as part of a larger package. He bundled his products in order to distribute them in greater numbers.
Note that Roberts also sold “DOCTOR’s BOXES” for vessels going to sea as well as to “private Families.” He recognized that the local market was comprised of more than the “Practitioners” who lived in Boston and its hinterland. The city was a busy port. Potential customers were arriving and departing by ship all the time. When they were in port, they needed a variety of supplies, including the “DRUGS and Medicines” that Roberts sold.
 Simon Finger, The Contagious City: The Politics of Public Health in Early Philadelphia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012), 120.
 Finger, Contagious City, 120.