December 21

What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?

Supplement to the New-York Journal (December 20, 1766).
Supplement to the New-York Journal (December 20, 1766).

“A fresh and general Assortment of Drugs and Medicines.”

Thomas Bridgen Attwood and Edward Agar both sold patent medicines recently imported from London, but the competitors advanced different strategies for attracting customers in their advertisements. Readers of the December 20, 1766, supplement to the New-York Journal encountered notices from both druggists in the center column on the second page, separated by only three other advertisements.

Like many shopkeepers, Agar provided a partial list of his merchandise, hoping to entice potential customers interested in particular products. Among “numberless other articles in the medicinal way,” Agar carried a dozen patent medicines that he mentioned by name: “DR. James’s fever powders, Hill’s pectoral balsam of honey, … Turlington’s balsam, Greenough’s tincture for the teeth, Lockyer’s pills, Anderson’s [pills]; Dr. Ward’s essence for the head-ach, Bateman’s drops, Stoughton’s bitters, Daffy’s elixir, Godfrey’s cordial; … [and] Dr. Ryan’s sugar plumbs for worms.” Colonists would have recognized each of these, just as modern consumers associate particular brands with specific symptoms and remedies.

Attwood depended on that familiarity, refraining from inserting any sort of list. Instead, in a separate paragraph (headed with a manicule to draw attention to it), he promised “The most approved patented Medicines, warranted genuine, from the Original Warehouses.” His advertisement appeared just below Agar’s, making any sort of list unnecessary since his competitor already named many of the most popular eighteenth-century patent medicines. However, even without such fortuitous placement of the two notices, Attwood could have depended on potential customers’ ability to identify a variety of medicines and makers on their own. He chose instead to focus on the services that he provided, including compounding new prescriptions and filling “Country Orders” from those who contacted him by letter rather than visiting his shop.

In general, Agar emphasized selection while Attwood accentuated service. The druggists found common ground when they each promised low prices, one of the most common appeals made to consumers in eighteenth-century advertising. Attwood, more economical in his use of words, pledged to “Sell at the very lowest prices, wholesale and retale.” Agar, the more verbose of the two, stoutly proclaimed that he sold imported patent medicines “on the lowest terms they can possibly be afforded by any one in America.” Which swayed potential customers? Agar’s extravagant assertions about his prices? Or Attwood’s variety of consumer-centered services?

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