GUEST CURATOR: Nicholas Macchione
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A New MEDICINAL DISCOVERY, of the UTMOST CONSEQUENCE to MANKIND; known abroad by the Name of, VELNOS’ Vegetable SYRUP: An acknowledged Specific in all Venereal and Scorbutic Cases”
This plant-based medication is proposed as a safer alternative to the conventional treatment of the day, which involved exposing patients to mercury in the hopes that it would induce them to expel the disease through bodily secretions. Despite the known dangers of mercury, and its unsavory side effects, it was still widely accepted in the medical community in the late eighteenth century. The advertisement claims that in addition to acting as a substitute for mercury, it also “repairs the havock it has made.” To emphasize the legitimacy of this alternative treatment to any skeptics, the advertisement describes the rigorous testing and clinical trials that the syrup underwent in Paris. Another selling point is the substance’s use in the relief of a number of ailments “arising from a foulness of the blood” not limited to venereal cases.
J. Burrows, the physician who claimed to be the “sole Proprietor of this remedy,” appears to have been one of several enterprising men who began selling their own version of vegetable syrup under the same name throughout the colonies. A certain Isaac Swainson took issue with this and denounced these imposters in his 1792 work, An Account of Cures by Velnos’ Vegetable Syrup, mentioning Burrows and others by name and assuring the public that “the Genuine Syrup of De Velnos can be prepared only by me.” This reveals that a certain level of competition between purveyors of this cure must have existed which prompted Swainson to put such a warning in writing, either out of concern for prospective patients or, more likely, to discredit his competition.
A 1789 etching published in London depicts angry physicians armed with scalpels and mercury who are unable to contend with Velnos’ Syrup being sold by Swainson, who stands smiling, surrounded by bottles of his cure. The cartoon also includes a reference to the number of people allegedly cured in 1788 and 1789 demonstrating that the syrup remained popular in the subsequent decades.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
This advertisement lists “J. BURROWS, M.D.” as the “Sole Proprietor of this Remedy,” yet he did not market it in Boston. Instead, a local agent, John Fleeming, hawked Velnos’ Vegetable Syrup to prospective patients in Boston and its hinterlands in the fall of 1771. The lengthy advertisement focused primarily on the patent medicine, but a brief note at the end informed readers that Fleeming also sold “Cheap Books and Stationary” at his shop “opposite the South Door of the Town-House.” In another advertisement in the same issue of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, Fleeming announced his plans to publish the “NEW-ENGLAND REGISTER, With an Almanack for 1772” in December.
Fleeming was well known in Boston as a printer, publisher, and bookseller, especially because he partnered with John Mein in publishing the Boston Chronicle, a newspaper that unapologetically expressed a Tory perspective and mocked Patriot leaders, from 1767 to 1770. Mein took the lead in that enterprise and caused so much controversy that he fled Boston for his own safety in 1769. Fleeming continued publishing the newspaper for only a few months. He turned his attention to other projects, including publishing an account of the trials that followed the Boston Massacre.
Like most colonial printers, Fleeming supplemented his revenues by selling “Cheap Books and Stationary.” A good number of printers also listed patent medicines in their advertisements, making those remedies the most common goods not directly associated with the books trades to appear in their newspaper notices. Eighteenth-century consumers would not have considered it out of the ordinary that Fleeming sold patent medicines, though the length and detail of the advertisement for Velnos’ Vegetable Syrup far exceeded the attention printers usually devoted to such nostrums. They tended to carry popular potions that needed no further explanation, but Fleeming and his associates apparently believed that prospective customers would be more likely to purchase this “New MEDICINAL DISCOVERY” when they learned more about it. The prospects for increased sales justified the greater expense for such a lengthy advertisement.