What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“WHO … can doubt of the amazing Effects of that powerful and invaluable Medicine?”
A feud between Charles Crouch, printer of the South-Carolina Gazette, and Powell, Hughes, and Company, printers of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, played out in the pages of their newspapers in the summer of 1772. This feud did not concern their work as printers, nor did it appear in editorials. Instead, they sniped at each other in advertisements hawking a popular patent medicine, “Dr. KEYSER’S famous PILLS.”
According to advertisements that frequently appeared in newspapers from New England to South Carolina, colonial printers often supplemented their revenues from newspaper subscriptions, advertising, job printing, books, and stationery by selling patent medicines. Doing so required no specialized knowledge of the cures. The printers merely needed to supply the directions that often accompanied the nostrums they peddled. In addition, many consumers were already familiar with the most popular patent medicines, the eighteenth-century equivalent of over-the-counter medications.
Powell, Hughes, and Company ran a lengthy advertisement for “Dr. Keyser’s GENUINE Pills” in the July 9 edition of the South-Carolina Gazette. They opened by stating that “numerous Trials have proved [the pills] to be the safest, best, mildest, and most agreeable Medicine ever discovered, for the Cure of the VENEREAL DISEASE, from the slightest Infection to the most inveterate State of that dreadful and almost unconquerable Disorder.” They provided a long history of the medicine and its efficacy, concluding with a guarantee “to return the Money, if a complete Cure is not performed, provided the Patient adheres to the Manner of taking [the pills], as is given in the printed Directions.”
In the next issue of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, distributed on July 14, Crouch positioned his own extensive advertisement for “A CONSIGNMENT” of patent medicines on the front page. The list of medicines began with “A FRESH PARCEL of Dr. KEYSER’s FAMOUS PILLS, With FULL DIRECTIONS for their Use in all CASES.” Rather than publish the history of that medicine in his advertisement, Crouch alerted readers that they could read “A NARRATIVE of the Effects of Dr. KESYER’s MEDICINE, with an Account of its ANALYSIS, by the Members of the Royal Academy of Sciences.” He further elaborated, “It were needless to trouble the public with more Encomiums on the Effects of this Remedy.”
That statement, as well as competition for customers, raised the ire of Powell, Hughes, and Company. Two days later, they updated their previous advertisement, inserting an introductory paragraph that directly addressed Crouch’s advertisement. The partners, “far from thinking ‘it NEEDLESS to trouble the Public with more Encomiums of the Effects of this Remedy,’ look upon it as their Duty to insert the following Particulars of Keyser’s invaluable Medicine, in order that the Afflicted in this Province, may, in some Respects be made acquainted with the Virtues of the most efficacious Medicine ever discovered, and know where to apply for Relief, without the Danger of having other Pills imposed on them instead the GENUINE.” Powell, Hughes, and Company implied that Crouch carried counterfeit pills before inserting their original advertisement in its entirety.
Crouch objected to that insinuation. In the July 21 edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal, he added a short note to his previous advertisement. Crouch now stated that he carried “A FRESH PARCEL of Dr. KEYSER’s FAMOUS PILLS, (perhaps the only REAL ONES that can be had in the Province at present) With FULL DIRECTIONS for their Use in all CASES.” He turned the accusation back to Powell, Hughes, and Company, suggesting that it was they, not he, who attempted to dupe the public with counterfeit and ineffective medicines.
That prompted Powell, Hughes, and Company to double down on their insistence that Crouch peddled counterfeits. On July 23, they expanded the new introduction of their advertisement, reiterating the “NEEDLESS to trouble the Public” quotation and adding a note about “the Danger of having a spurious Sort imposed on them, notwithstanding any forcible ‘PERHAPS’ to the Contrary.” Furthermore, they “assured” prospective customers that the pills they carried “were received from Mr. Keyser, therefore there can be no ‘Perhaps’ entertained of THEIR not being the GENUINE, unless it is by such who are naturally Obstinate and Conceited, without one good Quality to entitle them to be either.”
The back-and-forth continued in the next edition of the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal. Crouch and his competitors carefully monitored what each said about the other in their new advertisements. Crouch placed “NEW ADVERTISEMENTS” on the first page of the July 28 edition, leading with a new advertisement for “Dr. KEYSER’s famous PILLS” limited to a single paragraph that focused primarily on the controversy that had been brewing for the past few weeks. He once again stated that he sold the pills and declared that “he really believes (without forcible making Use of the Word “PERHAPS”) they are the only REAL ONES that can be had in the Province at present.” For the first time, he named his competitors, noting that “it is asserted (with a Degree of Scurrility) to the Contrary, in the latter Part of the Introduction to an Advertisement for the Sale of Keyser’s Pills, by Powell, Hughes, & Co. in a Gazette of the 23d Instant, said to be printed by these People.
Crouch devoted the remainder of his advertisement to upbraiding his competitors and defending his reputation. “In regard to the mean, rascally Insinuations against men, contained in said Introduction,” the printer stated, “I am happy in knowing that they do not, nor cannot in the least AFFECT me, especially as coming from such Hands.” He then suggested, “I think it would have been much more to their Credit, to have endeavoured to convince the Public, in a Manner different from what they did, that my Surmise was wrong, respecting the Pills sold by them.” He concluded with an assertion that “as to my good or bad Qualities, they are submitted to Candour and Impartiality of the respectable Public, whose Favours I shall always make my chief Study to merit; without fearing the Malice or Baseness of any Individual.”
Powell, Hughes, and Company did not interpret that as an overture to make peace or change their tone. On July 30, they began with the “New Advertisements” in the South-Carolina Gazette by reprinting Crouch’s advertisement “From the South-Carolina GAZETTE, AND Country Journal, of July 28, 1772. [No. 348.]” in its entirety. They made sure that readers could examine the original, though they also added “(t b c t f.)” to the final line, a notation that signaled to the compositor to continue inserting the advertisement until instructed to remove it. In so doing, they implied that Crouch intended to publicly shame them indefinitely. Yet they felt no remorse. Instead, they implied that Crouch suffered from the effects of venereal disease himself, especially cognitive deterioration, composing his latest advertisement only after taking a pill he acquired from Powell, Hughes, and Company. “WHO,” they asked, “after perusing the foregoing masterly Piece, produced by a SINGLE Dose of Dr. Keyser’s GENUINE Pills, sold by POWELL, HUSGHES, & Co. … can doubt of the amazing Effects of that powerful and invaluable Medicine?” They further intimated that Crouch suffered from venereal disease by asking, “After so copious a Discharge by ONE Dose, what may not be expected from a SECOND, or should THAT Patient take a WHOLE BOX?” Powell, Hughes, and Company snidely asserted that Crouch’s mental faculties were so far gone due to venereal disease that a single dose managed to give him only a few moments of clarity but he needed much more medicine to cease ranting and raving.
Powell, Hughes, and Company compounded the insult in a short paragraph that commented on Crouch’s grammar, further imputing that the effects of venereal disease made it difficult for him to string together coherent sentences. “In the mean Time,” they proclaimed, “the Reader is desired to correct TWO egregious Blunder, by inserting FORCIBLY for forcible, and THOSE PEOPLE instead of these People. The Word RASCALLY may stand, as ONE distinguishing Mark of the happy Talents and Abilities of the ingenious Author, as a —.” Pettiness descended into other insults unfit to print in the newspaper.
These exchanges demonstrate that Crouch and Powell, Hughes, and Company did not peruse each other’s publications solely in search of news items to reprint in their own. They also paid attention to advertisements, especially when their competitors marketed ancillary goods, like patent medicines, to supplement their revenues. These printers found themselves in competition to sell “Dr. KEYSER’S famous PILLS.” Rather than pursue their own marketing efforts, they chose to take umbrage at the strategies deployed by the other. Many purveyors of patent medicines stated in their advertisements that they did not need to offer additional information because the public was already so familiar with the product. Crouch may or may not have intended such an observation as a critique of Powell, Hughes, and Company’s advertisement. Whatever his intention, that was enough to garner a response that further escalated into a feud between rival printers hawking patent medicines.