GUEST CURATOR: Samuel Birney
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“THE BOSEM, OR, ORIENTAL BALSAM; FOR Preventing the APOPLEXY, SUDDEN DEATH, &c.”
Today’s advertisement offered “BOSEM, OR, ORIENTAL BALSAM,” described as a “CEPHALIC CORDIAL Medicine” that imbued the user with strength and energy for the heart, body, and spirit as well as cured certain diseases. This product supposedly revitalized the nervous system and dealt with ailments gained from old age like poor sight, dizziness, weak joints, shaking limbs, and loss of strength. The medicine was used for to treat fainting, strokes, epilepsy, and other diseases affecting the brain. D. Ingram also claimed that it helped reduce dangers both prior to pregnancy and those that arose after giving birth. The Bosem was also useful for dealing with tropical diseases picked up in the West Indies.
This sort of product was commonly referred to as patent medicine, a trend dating back to medieval Europe. A patent medicine was a product advertised by swindlers and apothecaries, whose “noisily hawking, or ‘quacking,’” gave rise to the term quack. Americans brought patent medicines over from Europe, and even developed their own home grown varieties, although there was preference for European products. Patent medicine had strong ties to newspaper advertisements, sometimes purchasing much of the advertising space, thus filling both the swindler and editor’s pockets.
Jim Cox states that the appearance of patent medicines actually held more credibility than the contents, with American producers reusing old bottles of European products and refilling them with either addictive or foul tasting substances before selling them off as the original product. The bosem advertised here originated in the ancient world as a perfume, although later apothecaries used it in medicines in the Far East before, if the advertisement is to believed, it spread throughout the British empire in the 1760s.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Providers of goods and services who resided in England rarely placed advertisements in American newspapers. Among the exceptions, purveyors of patent medicines most commonly hawked (or quacked about) their wares in colonial publications – or at least seemed to do so. Although all but the final two lines of this notice seem to have been composed by D. Ingram, “Man Midwife, Professor of Surgery and Anatomy, and Surgeon to Christ’s Hospital” in London, McLean and Treat most likely made the arrangements with the printer of the New-York Gazette to insert the advertisement. Note that the description of the medicine was dated October 1, 1765, more than a year before this appearance among advertisements in the New-York Gazette. Ingram likely distributed the same copy to newspapers in London as well as agents in the English provinces and American colonies whenever he made arrangements to enter new markets.
As Sam explains, patent medicines were particularly susceptible to counterfeiting. Producers and sellers of these nostrums worked out various means to assure potential customers who read their advertisements that they would indeed acquire authentic medicines. As this advertisement suggests, one method was making their concoctions available exclusively from select agents. In the case of Ingram’s Bosem, this notice informed residents of New York that it was “Sold by M‘LEAN, and TREAT only.” Similarly, Dr. Hill, who peddled a variety of medicines (each for different symptoms – none seemed to be the cure all Ingram purported the Bosem to be), placed a notice in the South-Carolina and American General Gazette announcing that he had “appointed Messrs. CARNE and WILSON my agents, for the sale of my medicines in CAROLINA.” Limiting the number of sanctioned sellers of particular patent medicines allowed producers to exert control over the distribution of their products, protecting their reputation from fraudulent imitators. It may have also allowed the designated agents to charge a premium thanks to their exclusive access to the product.