What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“In a short time JAMES RIVINGTON will publish some other particulars of the efficacy of Dr. KEYSER’s PILLS.”
Like many other colonial printers, James Rivington supplemented revenues from the usual operations of his printing office by peddling patent medicines. In particular, Rivington hawked Dr. Keyser’s Pills, one of the most popular treatments for venereal disease in eighteenth-century America. This remedy was so popular that often name recognition alone marketed the pills to prospective customers. For many weeks in the fall of 1773, Rivington ran a short advertisement that proclaimed, “EVERY ONE THEIR OWN PHYSICIAN, BY THE USE OF Dr, KEYSER’s PILLS.” A border comprised of decorative type enclosed the bold headline and a promise that the medicine would “infallibly cure a DISEASE, not to be mentioned in a News-Paper, without the Knowledge of the most intimate Friends.” For those still too embarrassed to purchase the pills, Rivington noted that they “are also wonderfully efficacious in curing the RHEUMATISM,” providing a cover story for prospective customers who wished to make use of it.
On occasion, Rivington enhanced that candid advertisement with descriptions of “CURES Performed by KEYSER’s PILLS,” giving examples to readers who still needed more convincing about whether they should invest in the medicine. In the October 24 edition of Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer, for instance, the printer included three stories of patients who had been cured of “a fashionable disease.” The most remarkable concerned a pregnant woman whose child “was born with the distemper.” When the mother’s symptoms “grew very alarming,” she took the pills and recovered. The infant’s wet nurse also took the pills and “the child, from the effect of the pills taken by the nurse, was perfectly restored to health.” According to this story, Dr. Keyser’s Pills were so effective that they even cured a baby breastfeeding from a woman directed to take them! The other two stories told of patients who had long suffered “with the same disease” and the “severest courses prescribed” by physicians, yet “restored” or “relieved” when they resorted to Dr. Keyser’s Pills. Once again, Rivington avoided associating the pills exclusively with venereal disease. To that end, he inserted other examples: “In the RHEUMATISM,” “In APOPLEXIES,” “In the ASTHMA,” and “A WHITE SWELLING.” That swelling almost resulted in “the amputation of an arm,” but the patient experienced “a radical cure” upon taking Dr. Keyser’s Pills.”
That did not exhaust the stories of successful treatments, just the amount of space that Rivington devoted to advertising the pills in that issue of his newspaper. He concluded his advertisement with a note that “In a short time [he] will publish some other particulars of the efficacy of Dr. KEYSER’s PILLS,” though he did not indicate if he intended to do so with newspaper advertisements, handbills, broadsides, or pamphlets. The media mattered less than alerting prospective customers that the printer had access to similar stories. They could wait to examine those or consider that sufficient enough justification to acquire the pills to start down their own road to recovery.