What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A List of Dr. HILL’s Medicines sold by Messrs. Carne and Wilson.”
Patent medicines became a staple of American advertising about as soon as the first weekly newspapers were published in the early eighteenth century, so much so that historians of advertising have focused attention disproportionately on these quack remedies. Why not? The advertisements hawked potions with odd names, emphasized strange ingredients, and made wild claims today considered obviously false, making later generations marvel that anyone could have possibly been influenced by that sort of marketing.
Yet patent medicines were indeed popular in eighteenth-century England and America, perhaps the first class of commodities to develop distinct and recognizable brand names. For instance, John Hill’s “PECTORAL BALSAM OF HONEY,” the first of half a dozen medicines listed in today’s advertisement, appeared in advertisements printed in newspapers throughout the colonies. Both apothecaries and shopkeepers announced that they imported and sold elixirs produced by Hill and other English “doctors,” assuming prospective customers recognized names and products like Anderson’s Pills, Batemans’s Drops, Stoughton’s Bitters, and Turlington’s Balsam. Unlike most purveyors of patent medicines, Hill, a botanist and author, did hold a medical degree.
Given the ease of counterfeiting patent medicines in a marketplace without formal regulation of medical supplies, Hill and others made various efforts to protect both their reputations and their share of the market. For instance, Hill designated specific agents authorized to sell his patent medicines. His advertisement first identified the men who operated on his behalf before listing and describing the remedies they sold to colonists: “I HAVE appointed Messrs. CARNE and WILSON my agents, for the sale of my medicines in CAROLINA; and all persons may be supplied wholesale and retail by them.” Others in Charleston and beyond sold patent medicines, including Hill’s various nostrums, but Carne and Wilson sought to benefit from having a seal of approval from Dr. Hill himself as they sold “ESSENCE OF WATER DOCK,” “TINCTURE OF VALERIAN,” and other medicines compounded by the famous doctor.