January 20

GUEST CURATOR:  Kelly Blecker

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

Supplement to the Boston-Gazette (January 20, 1772).

“Snake Root Waters.”

This advertisement features a wide variety of items for sale by Joseph Hall, including “Snake Root Waters,” an item I found particularly interesting. I had never heard of this before, so I was curious to see what it was and how colonists used it. The snakeroot plant is native to North America. According to George E. Gifford, Jr., in “Botanic Remedies in Colonial Massachusetts, 1620-1820,” snakeroot “had long been used by the Seneca … as a specific in cases of poisoning by the bite of a rattlesnake.” They boiled the plant in water and made a paste, or poultice, which they used to heal rattlesnake bite. “They had inferred this from a supposed resemblance between the root of the plant and the rattle of the snake.” Other uses for snakeroot included treating headache, stomachache, and respiratory problems such as pneumonia and bronchitis. English physicians found using the plant to treat their patients to be highly effective.

The increase in the use of snakeroot waters and other natural remedies showcases how the colonists did not trust European medicine exclusively. Gifford states, “The settlers benefited from the skill of native healers who understood the medicinal value of many indigenous animal and vegetable products.”  As a result, they “establish[ed] an independent tradition of prescribing a specific remedy for a specific ailment. It also caused them to gradually shift from relying on the European schoolmen to depending on the simples and specifics of the old wives, Indians, and ministers.” Colonists adopted knowledge and guidance from Native Americans to create remedies right in North America instead of relying only on patent medicines imported from England.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

Readers of the Boston-Gazette and other newspapers published throughout the colonies regularly encountered advertisements for a vast array of patent medicines produced in England and exported to America.  Apothecaries stocked patent medicines (as we will see in some of the advertisements selected by Kelly’s classmates), but so did merchants and shopkeepers … and even printers!  Patent medicines were the over-the-counter drugs of the eighteenth century, the brands and their uses so familiar that they did not require specialized expertise on the part of purveyors who provided them to colonial consumers.  The producers of many of those patent medicines claimed that their elixirs cured all sorts of maladies rather than targeting specific symptoms and illnesses.

Yet medical knowledge and remedies did not flow in just one direction across the Atlantic, as Kelly demonstrates in her examination of snakeroot.  On both sides of the Atlantic, Europeans embraced knowledge and products derived from the experiences of indigenous peoples.  As Gifford explains, “simple remedies,” like snakeroot, “were quite unlike the complicated nostrums and electuaries of Europe,” those patent medicines, “which sometimes contained up to eighty ingredients.”  Identifying a specific purpose for snakeroot and other flora contributed to a “tradition of prescribing a specific remedy for a specific ailment” instead of relying as extensively on patent medicines that supposedly cured just about any disorder or disease.

Gifford indicates that the “collection, cultivation, and exportation of plant drugs such as ipecac, Virginia snakeroot, and ginseng were of considerable economic significance in the colonies.”  In 1770, for instance, England imported seventy-seven tons of sassafras, used for treating syphilis.  Gifford describes this as part of a “favorable exchange” of ideas as European practitioners incorporated indigenous knowledge into their treatment of patients.  That does not mean that doctors and apothecaries recognized indigenous healers as equal partners in the enterprise, but Europeans on both sides of the Atlantic did benefit from knowledge, experience, and guidance from indigenous Americans.

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