What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“All which he will sell as reasonable as can be afforded in Boston.”
In the summer of 1770, Nathaniel Tucker advertised a “large Assortment of DRUGS & MEDECINES, Chymical & Galenical,” for sale at his shop across the street from the Old South Meeting House in Boston. His notice in the Boston Evening-Post listed several popular patent medicines, including Turlington’s Balsam of Life, Squire’s Original Grand Elixir, Fraunces’s Female Strengthening Elixir, and Dr. Bateman’s Golden Spirits. These nostrums were so familiar to colonial consumers that Tucker did not elaborate on their efficacy.
He did, however, promote his low prices. Tucker concluded his advertisement with a proclamation that he sold all of these items “as reasonable as can be afforded in Boston.” He did not name any prices, but he did suggest to prospective customers that they would not find better bargains anywhere in the bustling port city. Like the readers of the Boston Evening-Post, Tucker realized that consumers had many options for purchasing Hill’s Balsam of Honey, Dr. Walker’s Jesuit’s Drops, and the rest. Apothecaries stocked them, but such specialists were not alone in making them available. Shopkeepers who sold all sorts of goods also carried patent medicines. Even printers and booksellers frequently advertised that they sold patent medicines in addition to books, pamphlets, and stationery, a side hustle that supplemented revenues from activities more often associated with their trade.
In addition to offering low prices, Tucker implied that he would adjust those prices to reflect the local market. Although he did not explicitly state that he matched the prices of his competitors, his assertion that he “will sell as reasonable as can be afforded in Boston” suggested that his prices were flexible rather than fixed. In addition to not having to worry about being overcharged, prospective customers likely had opportunities to haggle with Tucker; such encounters were opportunities for him as well, opportunities to make sales that might otherwise have gone to other purveyors of patent medicines. Rather than simply listing the medicines at his shop, Tucker deployed price as the primary means of inciting demand for his wares.