October 15

GUEST CURATOR:  Colleen Barrett

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

Essex Gazette (October 15, 1771).

“Apothecary’s SHOP, AT THE Head of Hippocrates.”

On October 15, 1771, Nathanael Dabney advertised his apothecary shop in the Essex Gazette. Dabney sold “Drugs, Medicines, AND Groceries” in Salem, Massachusetts. This is one of many examples of advertisements for medicines in the newspapers of the period. Dabney sold medicines and other items imported from London, including “Patent Medicines of every sort from Dicey & Okell’s Original Wholesale Warehouse.”  According to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, patent medicines, like those mentioned in the advertisement, “are named after the ‘letters patent’ granted by the English crown.” Furthermore, the maker of any of these medicines had “a monopoly over his particular formula. The term ‘patent medicine’ came to describe all prepackaged medicines sold ‘over-the-counter’ without a doctor’s prescription” in later years.  Dabney also mentioned the services he provided at his shop, letting customers know that he “will wait on them at all Hours of the Day and Night.”

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

As Colleen notes, customer service was an important element of Nathanael Dabney’s marketing efforts.  He concluded his advertisement with a note that “Family Prescriptions” were “carefully put up, and Orders from the Country punctually obeyed.”  A manicule helped to draw attention to these services.  That Dabney “put up” prescriptions suggests that he was an apothecary who compounded medications at his shop rather than merely a shopkeeper who specialized in patent medicines.  He likely possessed a greater degree of expertise about the drugs and medicines he sold than retailers who included patent medicines among a wide array of imported goods.

Prospective customers did not need to visit Dabney’s shop “AT THE Head of Hippocrates” in Salem.  Instead, the apothecary offered the eighteenth-century equivalent of mail order service for clients who resided outside of town.  He assured them that they did not have to worry about receiving less attention than those who came into his apothecary shop.  Instead, he “punctually obeyed” their orders, echoing the sentiments of other advertisers who provided similar services.

In addition to customer service, Dabney attempted to entice potential customers with promises of quality, declaring that he imported his drugs “from the best House in LONDON.”  He made a point of mentioning that he received “Patent Medicines of every Sort from Dicey & Okell’s Original Wholesale Warehouse,” an establishment well known in London and the English provinces.  According to P.S. Brown, newspaper advertisements published in Bath in 1770 referred to “Dicey and Okell’s great original Elixir Warehouse.”[1]  Dabney may have hoped to benefit from name recognition when he included his supplier in his advertisement.

The apothecary promised low prices, stating that he sold his wares “at the cheapest rate,” but he devoted much more of his advertisement to quality and customer service.  He waited on customers whenever they needed him “at all Hours of the Day and Night,” compounded medications, and promptly dispatched orders to the countryside, providing a level of care that consumers did not necessarily receive from shopkeepers who happened to carry patent medicines.

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[1] P.S. Brown, “Medicines Advertised in Eighteenth-Century Bath Newspapers,” Medical History 20, no. 2 (April 1976):  153.

September 19

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

Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter (September 19, 1771).

“To be Sold by OLIVER SMITH, at the Golden Mortar.”

Oliver Smith, an apothecary, promoted a variety of remedies in an advertisement in the September 19, 1771, edition of the Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter.  The headline proclaimed “Best double-distilled Lavender Water,” introducing the merchandise before naming the seller.  Several other advertisements featured the same structure, including one for “Choice Cheshire CHEESE” placed by Ellis Gray and another for “THE very best of fresh Orange JUICE” from John Crosby.  Most purveyors of goods and services, on the other hand, used their names as headlines for their advertisements, including Caleb Blanchard, William Jackson, John Langdon, Henry Lloyd, and Jonathan Trott.  Thomas Walley adopted both methods.  “Teneriff Wine” appeared as the first headline and then his name as a second one.

Smith’s headline helped to distinguish his notice from others, but another element of the advertisement did so even more effectively.  A woodcut depicting a mortar and pestle appeared in the upper left corner, drawing the eye of readers.  Except for the lion and unicorn in the masthead at the top of the first page, Smith’s woodcut was the only image in that issue and the supplement that accompanied it.  Further enhancing the apothecary’s marketing efforts, the woodcut corresponded to the sign that marked the location of his shop.  He advised prospective customers that they could purchase a variety of nostrums “at the Golden Mortar” on Cornhill.  Other advertisers mentioned shop signs, but did not commission woodcuts to adorn their notices.  Crosby, for instance, regularly advertised citrus fruit “at the Sign of the Basket of Lemmons” in the South End, but he did not include an illustration.

Advertisers typically paid for the amount of space their notice occupied, not the number of words.  In that regard, Smith and Crosby made similar investments in marketing their wares in the September 19 edition.  Smith, however, incurred additional expense for the woodcut, an investment that he presumably believed would pay for itself by resulting in more attention and more customers.

June 25

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

Supplement to the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal (June 25, 1771).

“Boxes of Medicines for Plantation Use … will also contain a Phial of his famous FEVER DROPS.”

When apothecary Thomas Stinson purchased the shop and inventory of another apothecary, he placed an advertisement in the South-Carolina Gazette and Country Journal to inform prospective customers.  He pledged that he gave “constant Attendance” at the shop, standing ready to serve their needs.  In addition, he provided assurances that “his DRUGS and MEDICINES … are all fresh and good.”  Stinson directed his advertisement to various kinds of customers.  He addressed “his Friends and the Public,” consumers making purchases for their households, but he also sought customers who bought in greater volume.  “Gentlemen Practitioners, both in Town and Country,” Stinson declared, “may be supplied with any Quantity of Medicines on the usual reasonable Terms.”

In addition, Stinson offered a service to plantation owners and overseers, “Boxes of Medicines for Plantation Use” that they could administer on their own.  He produced and marketed an eighteenth-century version of first aid kits.  Apothecaries often mentioned similar services in their advertisements, preparing boxes containing a variety of remedies for all sorts of symptoms for families, mariners, and plantations.  Buyers benefited from the convenience of having medicines and supplies on hand when need arose, while apothecaries augmented their revenues by moving inventory that customers did not yet need and, because they bought the boxes as a precaution, might not ever need.

Stinson devoted more attention to the contents of his medicine boxes than most apothecaries, describing two of the items they contained.  Each box contained a vial of “his ELIXIR for all Kinds of cholicky Complaints” and a vial of “his famous FEVER DROPS.”  Stinson proclaimed that this nostrum was already “well known in many Parts of this Province, where it has been found effectual.”  Stinson asserted that users would not experience negative side effects, having been “innocent even to sucking Babes” when administered to them.  Some readers may have been skeptical about both the reputation and effectiveness of Stinson’s “famous FEVER DROPS.”  Including his fever drops and his elixir in the medicine box as part of the package allowed the apothecary to boost sales of items that plantation owners and overseers might not have ordered separately.  In turn, he could make even more elaborate claims about how widely his distributed those medicines that competed with patent medicines imported from England.  While many apothecaries sold medicine boxes, Stinson adapted his medicine boxes for an additional purpose, marketing the potions and panaceas he produced.

June 18

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

Essex Gazette (June 18, 1771).

“Those who live remote shall have their Orders as faithfully complied with as if present themselves.”

Apothecaries Nathanael Dabney and Philip Godfrid Kast competed for customers.  Each placed an advertisement in the June 18, 1771, edition of the Essex Gazette, inviting prospective customers to their shops in Salem.  Making the choice between the two apothecaries even more visible to readers, their advertisements appeared one after the other.  Kast, the more experienced advertiser, placed the longer notice.  It extended more than a column, extensively listing the items in stock at the Sign of the Lion and Mortar.  Kast also included blurbs about patent medicines, some of them more familiar to consumers than others, such as “Dr. Hill’s Pectoral Balsam of Honey,” “Dr. Robert James’s Powder for Fevers,” “Dr Stoughton’s great Cordial Elixir for the Stomach,” and “Dr. Scott’s Powder for the Teeth.”  Dabney, on the other hand, provided a shorter list of his inventory, but also promising “every Article in the Apothecary’s Way.”  He aimed to make himself competitive with Kast.

Both apothecaries sought clients in Salem and beyond, inviting readers unable to visit their shops to submit orders.  Dabney and Kast each pledged not to favor customers who visited their shops over those who did not.  “Those who live remote,” Dabney proclaimed, “shall have their Orders as faithfully complied with as if present themselves.”  Kast deployed similar language in a nota bene that concluded his advertisement: “Those who will send their Orders shall be as well used as if present themselves.”  That included both consumers and “Practitioners … in Town and Country.”  The apothecaries described an eighteenth-century version of mail order for “DRUGS and MEDICINES,” an effort to enhance their sales and increase their revenues by offering a convenience to their customers.  Some prospective clients may have found Kast’s advertisement the more alluring of the two.  In addition to a longer list of merchandise, the blurbs about various patent medicines served as suggestions for distant customers unable to consult with the apothecary in person.  Furthermore, Kast trumpeted that he sold his wares “as reasonable, and on as good Credit, as can be purchased in Boston.”  The apothecary no doubt sought to engage every reader, but especially prospective customers outside of Salem who might have been likely to look to Boston, the larger port, for better bargains when resorting to sending orders from a distance.

Dabney and Kast promoted the assortment of medicines they carried and pledged good customer service, but Kast further embellished his marketing efforts by comparing his prices to those in Boston and by providing descriptions of certain patent medicines to help prospective customers make their choices.  For instance, Kast declared that Stoughton’s Cordial “is as necessary for all Seamen or Travellers, and others, to take with them as their daily Food.”  That level of detail required purchasing additional space in the Essex Gazette, but Kast may have determined it was well worth the expense if it drummed up additional business.

January 17

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

Pennsylvania Journal (January 17, 1771).

“Each articles will be put up singly, and in the order of the inventory annexed.”

Both the size and format of Richard Tidmarsh’s advertisement on the final page of the January 17, 1771, edition of the Pennsylvania Journal likely attracted attention.  Rather than appearing in a single column, it ran across two columns.  It also extended half a column, creating a large rectangle of text that seemed to dominate the page even though it accounted for about one-third of the content.

Tidmarsh, a druggist, announced an upcoming auction of “DRUGS, MEDICINES, and SHOP FURNITURE” in advance of his departure from the colony “by the first spring vessels.”  He listed the items up for sale, in effect publishing an auction catalog as a newspaper advertisement.  That list made the format of his advertisement even more distinctive.  The introductory material extended across two columns, but the list of items for sale ran in three narrow columns that also did not correspond to the width of any columns that appeared elsewhere in the newspaper.  To help prospective buyers navigate the list, Tidmarsh arranged entries for medicines in alphabetical order.  In the final column, he inserted headers in capital letters for sections enumerating “PERFUMERY,” “PATENT MEDICINES,” and “SPARE UTENSILS and FURNITURE.”  In the introduction, the apothecary explained his rationale for selling items separately rather than as a whole.  He envisioned that “practitioners, as well as Gentlemen of the trade, will have an opportunity of being supplied with such articles as they may be out of.”  Tidmarsh apparently did not anticipate any buyers for his entire inventory, but did anticipate demand for the various drugs and medicines on their own.  He offered credit to buyers who purchased a sufficient quantity and promised that the “whole of the stock of MEDICINES and DRUGS are of the first quality.”  To guide prospective buyers through the auction, he asserted that each article would be sold “in the order of the inventory annexed.”

Tidmarsh advertised an eighteenth-century version of a “going out of business” sale.  In an effort to liquidate his inventory before leaving Philadelphia, he organized an auction that would allow buyers to acquire medicines “of the first quality” at bargain prices compared to retail and perhaps even wholesale transactions.  He published an auction catalog in the public prints, its organized columns guiding prospective bidders through both the items for sale and the order.  He also encouraged participation by offering credit to those who purchased in sufficient quantities.  The unusual format of the apothecary’s advertisement also drew attention to the upcoming auction, helping to generate interest and incite bidders to attend.

December 8

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

Providence Gazette (December 8, 1770).

Fresh from one of the best Druggists in London.”

Like many other apothecaries in colonial America, Amos Throop of Providence resorted to newspaper advertising to promote his wares and attract clients.  In an advertisement in the December 8, 1770, edition of the Providence Gazette, he informed the public that he carried “A GENERAL Assortment of DRUGS and MEDICINES” recently imported from London.  Those included popular patent medicines, such as “Tarlington’s Balsam of Life, Hill’s Balsam of Honey, Anderson’s Lockyer’s and Hopper’s Pills, Stoughton’s Elixir, [and] Bateman’s Drops.”  Throop expected that these remedies were so familiar to prospective clients that he did not to describe the symptoms each eliminated.

Throop sought clients of various sorts, both “Families in Town or Country” and “Practitioners” like Ephraim Otis, whose own advertisement stated that he “offers himself in the Capacity of Physician and Surgeon, in every Branch (particularly Osteology and Bone setting).”  The apothecary also found himself in competition with William Bowen.  In his advertisement, Bowen declared that he “continues to practice Physic, Surgery and Midwifry” as well as sell “a neat Assortment of Drugs and Medicines, at as cheap a Rate as can be bought in this Town.”  Throop also pledged that his customers “may depend on having everything good and cheap,” but he further enhanced his appeal to distinguish it from Bowen’s promise of low prices.  He explained that he acquired his medicines “twice a year … fresh from one of the best Druggists in London.”  His clients did not have to worry that nostrums they purchased at his shop had been sitting on the shelves or in the storeroom so long as to diminish their effectiveness.  Furthermore, Throop explained that he had received a shipment “in the Snow Tristam, Captain Shand, from London.”  Readers familiar with vessels that arrived and departed could judge for themselves how recently Throop had updated his inventory.

Bowen and Throop both advertised “DRUGS and MEDICINES” in the Providence Gazette.  While Bowen relied primarily on low prices to market his merchandise, Throop offered more extensive appeals to prospective clients.  He underscored quality by asserting connections to a respected colleague in London, outlined his schedule for replenishing his inventory, noted which vessel recently delivered new items, provided credit to practitioners “who will open a Trade with him,” sold ancillary products, and made his wares available at bargain prices.

November 27

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

Essex Gazette (November 27, 1770).

“At the Sign of the Lion and Mortar.”

In the fall of 1770, Philip Godfrid Kast, an apothecary, placed an advertisement in the Essex Gazette to inform potential customers that he carried “a general Assortment of Medicines” at his shop “At the Sign of the Lion and Mortar” in Salem, Massachusetts.  Purveyors of goods and services frequently included shop signs in their newspaper advertisements in the eighteenth century, usually naming the signs that marked their own location but sometimes providing directions in relation to nearby signs.  On occasion, they included woodcuts that depicted shop signs, but few went to the added expense.  Eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements provide an extensive catalog of shop signs that colonists encountered as they traversed city streets in early America, yet few of those signs survive today.

Kast did not incorporate an image of the Sign of the Lion and Mortar into his newspaper advertisements in the fall of 1770, but four years later he distributed a trade card with a striking image of an ornate column supporting a sign that depicted a lion working a mortar and pestle.  Even if the signpost was exaggerated, the image of the sign itself likely replicated the one that marked Kast’s shop.  Nathaniel Hurd’s copperplate engraving for the trade card captured more detail than would have been possible in a woodcut for a newspaper advertisement.  Absent the actual sign, the engraved image on Kast’s trade card provided the next best possible option in terms of preserving the Sign of the Lion and Mortar given the technologies available in the late eighteenth century.  Trade cards, however, were much more ephemeral than newspapers and the advertisements they contained.  That an image of the Sign of the Lion and Mortar survives today is due to a combination of luck, foresight (or accident) on the part of Kast or an eighteenth-century consumer who did not discard the trade card, and the efforts of generations of collectors, librarians, catalogers, conservators, and other public historians.  Compared to woodcuts depicting shop signs in newspaper advertisements, trade cards like those distributed by Kast even more accurately captured the elaborate details.  Those shop signs contributed to a rich visual landscape of marketing in early America.

Philip Godfrid Kast’s Trade Card, Engraved by Nathaniel Hurd, Boston, 1774 (American Antiquarian Society).

November 15

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

South-Carolina Gazette (November 15, 1770).

“ELIXIRS … PILLS … WATERS.”

The partnership of Carne and Poinsett sold a variety of medicines and medical supplies at their shop on Elliott Street in Charleston.  In a newspaper advertisement that ran for six weeks in the late fall of 1770, they advised prospective clients of a “LARGE Parcel of DRUGS and MEDICINES” and “INSTRUMENTS” they had just imported.  Like apothecaries and others who sold popular patent medicines, they provided a list for consumers to examine in advance of visiting their shop.  Carne and Poinsett, however, adopted an innovative approach to organizing their “COMPOLETE ASSORTMENT” of “FAMILY MEDICINES” within their advertisement.

Most advertisers simply listed the various patent medicines in paragraphs of dense text, expecting readers to sort through all of them.  A smaller number of advertisers enumerated one remedy per line, often dividing their notices into two columns, thus allowing readers to peruse their inventory more easily.  Still, they did not impose any particular organizing principle on the merchandise in their advertisements.

Carne and Poinsett categorized their medicines and grouped them together for the convenience of prospective clients who encountered their advertisement in the South-Carolina Gazette.  Rather than have Fraunces’s Female Elixir, Hooper’s Pills, and Stewart’s Tincture appear one after another, they instead listed all of the elixirs together, all of the pills together, and all of the tinctures together.  They did the same for waters and essences.  Rather than clutter the advertisement by repeating the words “elixir,” “pills,” “tincture,” and “water,” they instead inserted those words just once, along with printing ornaments that made clear they identified categories of medicines.  Doing so created more white space within the advertisement, which further enhanced its readability.

In their efforts to market patent medicines to prospective clients, Carne and Poinsett produced an organized catalog condensed to fit within a newspaper advertisement.  While compositors usually exercised discretion when it came to the format of notices, that does not seem to have been the case with Carne and Poinsett’s advertisement.  They placed the same notice in the South-Carolina and American General Gazette, featuring the same graphic design.  That would have been too much of a coincidence to attribute to the creativity of the compositors of the two newspapers.  Carne and Poinsett certainly submitted copy with instructions for how it should appear in print.

October 8

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

Boston-Gazette (October 8, 1770).

“All the Patenteed Medicines, too many to be enumerated in an Advertisement.”

Oliver Smith advertised a “compleat Assortment of the very best DRUGGS and MEDICINES” in the October 8, 1770, edition of the Boston-Gazette.  He sold his remedies individually, but also offered “Family and Ship Boxes” that packaged together “most of the Medicines generally in Use” along with directions for administering them.  These eighteenth-century versions of first aid kits allowed apothecaries to increase their sales by asking consumers to anticipate possible future needs for a variety of medicines rather than wait until they had a specific need for any particular medicine.  Smith and others marketed “Family and Ship Boxes” as a convenience for their customers, but they also amounted to additional revenue for the sellers.

Smith also informed readers that he carried “All the Patenteed Medicines, too many to be enumerated in an Advertisement.”  Not listing those items saved Smith both space and money.  He expected that consumers were so familiar with the array of patent medicines on the market that he did not need to name them.  This strategy also indicated confidence that he had on hand a complete inventory.  They could depend on him carrying Turlington’s Original Balsam of Life, Godfrey’s General Cordial, Walker’s Jesuit Drops, Dr. Stoughton’s Elixir, Hooper’s Pills, Greenough’s Tincture for the Teeth and Gums, Bateman’s Pectoral Drops, and a variety of other patent medicines that apothecaries, shopkeepers, and even printers frequently listed in their advertisements.  One column over from Smith’s advertisement, William Jones did indeed name all of those nostrums and others.

Much of Smith’s advertisement focused on convenience.  In addition to selling “Family and Ship Boxes” and stocking a complete inventory of patent medicines, he operated his shop at a convenient location, “the next Door Northward of Doctor John Greenleaf’s in Cornhill.”  Prospective customers who had occasion to consult with Dr. Greenleaf could then visit Smith’s apothecary shop next door to select any medicines that the doctor recommended.  Smith also noted that the shop had been “lately improved” to make it more appealing to customers.  With the various conveniences he provided, Smith sought to make it as simple as possible for prospective customers to care for their health.

September 1

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

Sep 1 - 9:1:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (September 1, 1770).

“At the Sign of the Unicorn and Mortar.”

On the first day of September in 1770, Benjamin Bowen and Benjamin Stelle advertised “MEDICINES, A full and general Assortment, Chymical and Galenical,” in the Providence Gazette.  They informed prospective customers that they could purchase these medicines “at the well-known Apothecary’s Shop just below the Church, at the Sign of the Unicorn and Mortar.”  In case that shop was not as familiar to readers as Bowen and Stelle suggested it might be, they named the sign that adorned it.  That landmark identified the exact location to acquire “the best of MEDICINES” and “CHOCOLATE, by the Pound, Box, or Hundred Weight.”

Newspaper advertisements placed by entrepreneurs like Bowen and Stelle testify to the visual landscape that colonists encountered as they traversed the streets of towns and cities in eighteenth-century America.  In addition to the “Sign of the Unicorn and Mortar,” that same issue of the Providence Gazette included directions to John Carter’s printing office at “the Sign of Shakespeares Head.”  Not all advertisers always included their shop signs in their notices.  Joseph Russell and William Russell placed an advertisement for gun powder and shot that did not make reference to the “Sign of the Golden Eagle.”  On other occasions, however, they were just as likely to include the sign without their name, so familiar had it become in Providence.

Very few eighteenth-century shop signs survived into the twenty-first century.  Evidence that the “Unicorn and Mortar,” “Shakespeares Head,” and the “Golden Eagle” once marked places of commercial activity and aided colonists in navigating the streets of Providence and other places comes from newspaper advertisements and other documents from the period.  Any catalog of such signs draws heavily from advertisements since colonists so often referenced them in their notices.  Even those who did not have shop signs of their own listed their locations in relation to nearby signs, suggesting the extent that shop signs helped colonists make sense of their surroundings and navigate the streets of towns and cities.