What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Dr. Keyser’s Pills … warranted genuine.”
Townsend Speakman and Christopher Carter, “CHYMISTS and DRUGGISTS,” advertised widely in October and November 1773. They placed advertisements simultaneously in the Pennsylvania Chronicle, the Pennsylvania Gazette, the Pennsylvania Journal, and the Pennsylvania Packet. Each of those advertisements promoted raisins, figs, and currants as well as “an Assortment of the freshest DRUGS and PATENT MEDICINES.” They offered the “most saleable Articles in large Quantities” to shopkeepers and others who planned to retail them. Printers, for instance, often supplemented revenues from other sources by peddling patent medicines.
On November 1, the Pennsylvania Packet ran an abbreviated version of Speakman and Carter’s advertisement. In notices in the other three newspapers during that week, the apothecaries highlighted a “Parcel of Keyser’s famous Pills, from the Importer in London, with full Directions for their Use.” They pledged that “the Public may be assured these Pills are the genuine Sort,” and to demonstrate that was indeed the case “they have inserted the Copy of a Certificate received with [the pills], the Original of which may be seen by any Purchaser.” The copy of that certificate comprised the final third of the advertisement. In it, James Cowper, “Doctor of Physic,” declared himself “the only legal Proprietor of a Medicine, called KEYSER’S PILLS, in England.” Furthermore, he certified that Speakman and Carter, “Chymists and Druggists, in Philadelphia, are my only Correspondents to whom I send the above Pills in that Part of the World.” Consumers did not need to worry about purchasing counterfeit pills if they acquired them from Speakman and Carter.
According to another advertisement in the Pennsylvania Journal, however, customers in Philadelphia had another option for obtaining Keyser’s Pills without worrying about getting duped by unscrupulous sellers. That advertisement appeared immediately below Speakman and Carter’s advertisement, a rather cheeky placement considering that it listed William Bradford and Thomas Bradford, printers of the Pennsylvania Journal, as local agents who sold the pills. Speakman and Carter paid the Bradfords to run their advertisement, complete with the certificate, and they may have expected competition but not efforts to outright undermine their marketing strategy. The advertisement replicated James Rivington’s “Every One their own Physician” notice from Rivington’s New-York Gazetteer, along with a few additions. In addition to listing the Bradfords as local agents, a letter from Rivington to the Bradfords followed the testimonials.
Just as Speakman and Carter reprinted Cowper’s certificate in its entirety, the Bradfords published Rivington’s entire letter. He noted that he saw “an advertisement in the Philadelphia Papers, relating to Dr. Keyser’s Pills, importing that they were procured from Dr. Cowper, of London, and warranted genuine.” Rivington could do one better. “I think it very proper the Public should be assured,” he trumpeted, “that the Pills, which you have had from me, and now advertize for sale, were imported by me, immediately from Mr. Keyser himself, at Paris.” In addition, Rivington offered to show Keyser’s “letters and correspondence for some years past … to any person, who may require a sight of them.” Furthermore, Rivington was also vigilant about counterfeits, reporting that he “detected a counterfeit sort, exposed to sale in New-York, of which Mr. Keyser has sent me a written declaration.” Rivington concluded by inviting the Bradfords to insert his letter in their newspaper so “the Public may be once more informed you have the Pills sent directly from Mr. Keyser” to New York and then forwarded to Philadelphia.
It was not the first time that printers who sold Keyser’s Pills became embroiled in disputes over who stocked authentic medicines. In the summer of 1772, printers in South Carolina pursued a feud in their newspapers, sometimes alluding to notices placed by their competitors and sometimes responding to them directly. Among the many purveyors of Keyser’s Pills, a great many claimed that they carried genuine medicines and possessed some sort of exclusive right to market them in their town.