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.

August 27

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

Aug 27 - 8:27:1770 Pennsylvania Chronicle
Pennsylvania Chronicle (August 27, 1770).

“I took Dr. Weed’s Syrup for the Bloody Flux, which gave me immediate ease.”

An advertisement for “Dr. Weed’s Syrup and Powder for the Bloody Flux” in the August 27, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Chronicle consisted almost entirely of testimonials.  One after another, four patients who had taken the elixir described how it had cured them.  For instance, Margaret Lee testified, “FOR the good of those who are afflicted with the Bloody Flux, I would inform them that I was lately seized with the disorder, and had it very bad; but by taking Dr. Weed’s Syrup and Powder for the Bloody Flux, according to directions, I found immediate ease and by repeating it a few times was perfectly cured.”  Each of the testimonials was dated within the past month, making them current endorsements of the nostrum.

Except for a headline that read “To the PUBLIC,” the advertisement did not include any additional information, not even instructions about where to purchase Dr. Weed’s Syrup and Powder for the Bloody Flux.  George Weed apparently did not believe that such details were necessary given his stature in the community and long experience serving residents of Philadelphia.  Dr. Weed’s Syrup and Powder for the Bloody Flux was not a mass-produced patent medicine imported from across the Atlantic.  It did not bear the name of a physician or apothecary famous throughout the British Empire.  Instead, Weed prepared his syrup and powder in Philadelphia and sought to cultivate local and regional acclaim for those medicines.  In an advertisement he placed in the Pennsylvania Gazette three years earlier, he touted his thirty of experience, including “the last seven Years of which he served in the Pennsylvania Hospital” where he “attended to all the Administrations of Medicine, and Chirurgical Operations in that Infirmary.”  Even though Philadelphia was the largest city in the colonies in 1770, it was still a small enough town that Weed could assume that readers of the Pennsylvania Chronicle either already knew of him or could easily learn more by asking their acquaintances.  Whether or not that was the case, Weed gambled on making an impression by devoting his entire advertisement to testimonials and trusting that his reputation would do the rest of the work necessary to direct prospective patients to his shop.

August 20

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

Aug 20 - 8:20:1770 Boston-Gazette
Boston-Gazette (August 20, 1770).

“Doctor’s Boxes … are carefully prepared.”

Peter Roberts advertised “An Assortment of the best DRUGS and MEDICINES” as well as other medical supplies, including “Surgeons Instruments,” “Iron and Marble Mortars and Pestles,” and “a great Variety of Smelling Bottles” in the August 20, 1770, edition of the Boston-Gazette.  In addition to listing his wares, he adopted two other marketing strategies commonly deployed by apothecaries and others who sold medicines.  In both, he emphasized convenience as an important part of the customer service he provided.

Roberts informed prospective customers that “Doctor’s Boxes of various Prices, with proper Directions, are carefully prepared and put up for Ships or private Families.”  He produced an eighteenth-century version of a first aid kit, packaging together several useful items that buyers did not need at the moment but would likely find useful when need did arise.  Even if the purchasers never used some of those items but merely had them on hand out of caution, Roberts still generated revenue for each item included in those “Doctor’s Boxes.”  At the same time, he sold a sense of security to those who felt better prepared for illnesses, injuries, and emergencies because they had a variety of medical supplies on hand.  To enhance that sense of security, Roberts included “proper Directions” in each box he prepared.  Buyers benefited from the convenience of having medicines, medical supplies, and directions easily accessible in those “Doctor’s Boxes.”

Roberts also offered medical professionals the convenience of placing their orders through the post or messenger rather than visiting his shop “opposite the West Door of the Town-House, BOSTON.”  He advised that “Practitioners in Town and Country may depend on being as well used by Letter as if present themselves.”  Roberts likely hoped to increase his share of the market by assuring prospective customers who could not come to his shop because they were too busy or because they resided too far away that he would not provide second-rate service.  He underscored that their business was important to him.

Roberts made clear in his advertisement that he did more than merely dispense drugs and sell medical equipment.  He aimed to provide a level of service and convenience that added value to the merchandise he offered for sale.  He intended that such marketing strategies would attract customers choosing among the many purveyors of patent medicines and other medical supplies in colonial Boston.

June 23

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

Jun 23 - 6:23:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (June 23, 1770).

“Supplied with genuine Medicines, very cheap.”

In the summer of 1770, Amos Throop sold a “compleat Assortment of MEDICINES” at his shop in Providence, appropriately identified by “the Sign of the Golden Pestle and Mortar.”  His inventory included a variety of popular patent medicines imported from London, including “Hooper’s, Lockyer’s, and Anderson’s genuine Pills,” “Stoughton’s Elixir,” and “Hill’s Balsam of Honey.”

In an advertisement in the Providence Gazette, the apothecary addressed different sorts of prospective customers.  He informed “Country Practitioners” that he could fill their orders “as cheap as they can be served in Boston, or elsewhere.”  Throop competed in a regional market; druggists in other port towns also imported medicines from London.  Prospective customers could send away to Boston, Newport, or even New York if they anticipated bargain prices, but Throop sought to assure them that they did not need to do so.  Throop may have anticipated particular benefits from cultivating this clientele.  “Country Practitioners” were more likely than others to purchase by volume.  Their patronage indirectly testified to the efficacy of Throop’s medicines and his standing as a trusted apothecary.

Those factors may have helped him attract other customers who did not practice medicine.  Throop also invited “Families in Town and Country” to shop at the Golden Pestle and Mortar.  He promised them low prices, but he also emphasized customer service, stating that they “may depend on being used in the best Manner.”  In addition, he also attempted to allay concerns about purchasing counterfeit remedies.  Throop pledged to supply his customers “with genuine Medicines,” putting his own reputation on the line as a bulwark against bogus elixirs and nostrums.  When it came to patent medicines, the fear of forgeries merited reiterating that his inventory was “genuine” when he listed the choices available at his shop.

The neighborhood pharmacy is ubiquitous in the twenty-first century, but that was not the kind of business that Throop operated in Providence in the eighteenth century.  Instead, he served both local residents and “Country Practitioners” and “Families in Town and Country,” competing with apothecaries in Boston and other towns.  To do so effectively, he had to depict the many advantages of choosing the Golden Pestle and Mortar, from low prices to authentic medicines to good customer service.

May 30

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

May 30 - 5:30:1770 South-Carolina and American General Gazette
South-Carolina and American General Gazette (May 30, 1770).

“BOXES of MEDICINES made up, as usual, on the shortest Notice.”

After the partnership of Carne and Wilson dissolved in 1770, apothecary Robert Carne placed an advertisement in the South-Carolina and American General Gazette to advise prospective customers that he “now carries on the Business at the Old Shop on the Bay.”  He intended to provide the same services without disruption, asserting that his shop “will continue to be supplied as amply and regularly as at any time heretofore” and that clients could depend that “their Orders will be speedily and punctually executed.”  In effect, Carne promised good customer service.

That service extended to provisioning customers with “BOXES of MEDICINES,” which Carne “made up, as usual, on the shortest Notice.”  Apothecaries and druggists in Charleston and other towns sometimes noted that they offered the convenience of putting together such boxes.  The contents consisted of a variety of the most popular medicines and supplies to prepare purchasers for the most common maladies.  In some advertisements, apothecaries noted that they produced different sorts of boxes, some for families, some for country doctors whose patients might not have access to the same range of medications available in urban ports like Charleston and Philadelphia, and some for plantation owners and overseers to tend to the illnesses of enslaved workers.

These boxes provided customers with the convenience of making a single purchase rather than shopping for the many components individually.  That also benefited the apothecaries who furnished the “BOXES of MEDICINES.”  Carne and others could include a variety of tinctures and nostrums that clients did not yet need and might never need yet wished to have on hand.  This inflated sales and generated additional revenues in a manner easily framed as a supplementary service that primarily benefited customers.  As Carne entered a new stage of his career, it made sense for him to draw special attention to these boxes in a note at the conclusion of his advertisement, complete with a manicule to direct the attention of “the Publick in general, and his Friends in particular.”  Such boxes stood to produce greater profits than individual orders.

May 24

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

May 24 - 5:24:1770 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (May 24, 1770).

“AN entire Assortment of all Kinds of DRUGS.”

In eighteenth-century American newspapers, compositors did not organize advertisements according to category or classification.  Advertisements for consumer goods and services, legal notices, advertisements concerning runaway servants and enslaved people who escaped from those who held them in bondage, and notices placed for a variety of other purposes appeared one after the other.  This required active reading on the part of subscribers in their efforts to locate advertisements of interest.

Occasionally, however, compositors did cluster together certain kinds of advertisements.  When the female seed sellers of Boston placed their advertisements in the spring, compositors working for several of the newspapers published in that city often tended to place their notices in a single column in the late 1760s and early 1770s.  Similarly, the compositor for the Pennsylvania Gazette often arranged legal notices placed by the sheriff one after the other during the same period, though this may have been prompted in part from receiving them all at once.  Still, notices placed by different sheriffs often tended to appear in succession in a single column.  Whatever the explanation, these examples were exceptions rather than standard practice.

Did compositors sometimes experiment with grouping other advertisements according to their purpose?  That may have been the case in the May 24, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette.  Advertisements appeared on the third and fourth page of the standard issue as well as both pages of the supplement.  Advertisements placed by apothecaries and druggists could have been dispersed throughout the issue, yet three of them ran together in the upper left corner of the final page.  Robert Bass, apothecary, advertised “AN entire fresh Assortment of all Kinds of DRUGS [and] … a great Variety of Patent Medicines.”  Duffield and Delany, druggists, promoted their “fresh and general Assortment of DRUGS and MEDICINES.”  John Day and Company listed some of the items available among their “LARGE and general assortment of the very best Drugs” at their “Medicinal Store.”  Due to their placement one after the other, readers could easily consult and compare these advertisements.

Yet if that were the intention of the compositor, it was not fully realized.  Further down the column, separated by four advertisements (a real estate notice, another for horses and a carriage for sale, one for grocery items, and the last for hardware), another advertisement announced that John Gilbert, physician and surgeon, had opened “AN APOTHECARY’S SHOP.”  A newcomer to the city, Gilbert focused on establishing his credentials rather than providing a list of medicines similar to those that appeared in the advertisements by Bass, Duffield and Delany, and John Day and Company.  On the previous page, Isaac Bartram and Moses Bartram, apothecaries, ran an advertisement that more closely resembled those placed by their competitors.

The cluster of advertisements placed by apothecaries and druggists in the May 24,1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette was notable because such placement was unusual.  Elsewhere in the same issue and its supplement, the compositor arranged legal notices together, but not all of them.  No particular organizing principle seems to have guided the placement of other advertisements, except for fitting them to the page to achieve columns of equal length.  Perhaps the cluster of advertisements for Robert Bass, Duffield and Delany, and John Day and Company was a mere coincidence.  Alternately, it may have been a rudimentary attempt at classifying and organizing at least some of the advertisements for the benefit of readers.

October 4

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

Oct 4 - 10:4:1769 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (October 4, 1769).

“A Compleat Assortment of MEDICINES.”

Lewis Johnson’s advertisements for medicines became a familiar sight in the Georgia Gazette in the late 1760s. Several qualities made them particularly notable, including their length, their unique format, and Johnson’s name in large gothic font as a headline. His advertisement in the October 4, 1769, edition included all of these attributes.

The compositor distributed gothic font throughout the issue, but sparingly. On the final page, four legal notices commenced by naming the colony. “Georgia” appeared in gothic font the same size as the rest of the copy in those advertisements. Another paid notice seeking overseers to manage a rice planation used “Wanted Immediately” in gothic font as a headline. The final advertisement on that page as well as another on the third page described enslaved people “Brought to the Workhouse.” That phrase in gothic type served as a standard headline for such advertisements in the Georgia Gazette, making them recognizable at a glance. One more notice, also on the third page with Johnson’s advertisement, described a house “To be Let” with that phrase in gothic font as the headline. In each instance of gothic font in the issue, it appeared in the same size as the copy for the rest of the advertisement, except for Johnson’s name. It ran in a much larger font, one larger than anything else in the newspaper except its title in the masthead. This created a striking headline that would have been difficult for readers to miss.

The length of Johnson’s advertisement also made it impossible to overlook. Listing dozens of medicines available at the apothecary’s shop, it extended two-thirds of a column. The entire issue consisted of only four pages of two columns each. Johnson’s advertisement was significantly longer than any other paid notice. It rivaled in length even the longest of news items, occupying a substantial amount of space in the issue. Considering that colonial printers charged by the amount of space rather than the number of words, Johnson’s advertisement represented a considerable investment.

Finally, the apothecary deployed unique typography that made it easier for prospective customers to read his advertisement than many others that listed their wares in dense blocks of text. Divided into three columns, his advertisement named only one item per line. Johnson did not always divide his advertisements into columns, but he
did so fairly regularly. Usually, however, he resorted to only two columns. This advertisement featured three, a graphic design decision that reduced the amount of space it occupied on the page while simultaneously introducing an innovative format that rarely appeared in advertisements in any colonial newspaper.

Johnson incorporated three visual elements that made his advertisement noteworthy and more likely to attract the attention of prospective customers. His name in large gothic font as a headline, the extraordinary length, and dividing it into three columns each on their own would have distinguished his advertisement from others in the Georgia Gazette. Combining them into a single advertisement made it even more unique. The various graphic design elements demanded that readers take notice.

May 27

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

May 27 - 5:27:1769 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (May 27, 1769).

Practitioners, and others, in the Country, on sending a Line, may depend on being well used.”

Jabez Bowen, Jr., advertised “A large and general Assortment of the most valuable Drugs and Medicines” in the May 27, 1769, edition of the Providence Gazette. His inventory included familiar patent medicines, such as “Turlington’s Balsam of Life,” “Godfry’s Cordial,” “Bateman’s and Stoughton’s Drops,” and “Daffy’s Elixir.” In addition, he stocked several spices sometimes compounded into remedies. He testified to the authenticity of the various remedies and also made an appeal to price.

Bowen invited potential customers to visit his shop “fronting the Great Bridge” in Providence, but he did not confine his clientele only to those who resided in town. In a note at the end of his advertisement, he advised that “Practitioners, and others, in the Country, on sending a Line, may depend on being well used.” In other words, he offered the eighteenth-century equivalent of ordering through the mail. Bowen provided a service that advertisers often promoted, though apothecaries tended to do so more often than those who followed other occupations. They usually identified two sorts of clients, colleagues who practiced medicine in one capacity or another and the general public. Cultivating relationships with the former had the potential to generate significant additional sales if country doctors, apothecaries, and others decided to purchase large quantities in order to avoid running short on supplies. Customer service was an important aspect of first attracting and then maintaining relationships with any and all correspondents. To that end, Bowen did not merely state that he accepted orders from the country. Instead, he pledged that customers who sent their orders “may depend on being well used.” Others sometimes added the phrase “as if present” to underscore that they devoted the same care and attention to customers who submitted orders via the post or messenger as they did to those they served in person in the shop. Such reassurances may have helped some clients feel more comfortable placing orders from afar, more willing to give that method a chance to decide themselves if the quality of the service matched the convenience.

April 10

GUEST CURATOR: Bryant Halpin

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

Pennsylvania Chronicle (April 10, 1769).

“A FRESH supply of choice drugs and medicines.”

When I looked at this advertisement I wondered what kinds of “drugs and medicines” colonists had in 1769? How did colonists deal with diseases? According to Robin Kipps, who manages the Pasteur & Galt Apothecary at Colonial Williamsburg, “The sciences of biology and chemistry had not made significant impacts on the theories of disease. The big health issues of the day were not heart disease, cancer, obesity, or diabetes; they were smallpox, malaria, and childhood illnesses.” In the colonial and revolutionary periods, Americans did not have to worry about the same kind of disease that we do today. Instead, they had all kinds of other deadly diseases they had to worry about that people nowadays do not need to worry about due to advances in science and medicine. Colonists did not have the vaccines at this point in time to prevent many deadly diseases from happening and spreading to others, though they had experimented with smallpox inoculation.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes

John Sparhawk had competition. He was not the only purveyor of “choice drugs and medicines” in Philadelphia who advertised in the April 10, 1769, edition of the Pennsylvania Chronicle. Robert Bass, an apothecary who regularly inserted advertisements in several local newspapers, also ran a notice, one that may have more effectively captured the attention of prospective clients.

Sparhawk, a bookseller, published a comparatively sparse advertisement. Like many other printers and booksellers in eighteenth-century America, he supplemented his income by selling other items, including patent medicines, on the side. Such was the case with the “FRESH supply” that he had “just received from London” and sold at his bookstore. He made appeals to price and quality, pledging that he sold them “as low as can be bough[t] in America of equal quality,” but otherwise did not elaborate on these patent medicines.

Pennsylvania Chronicle (April 10, 1769).

Robert Bass, on the other hand, underscored his expertise in his advertisement, using his superior knowledge to leverage readers to visit his shop to seek consultations and make purchases. In addition to using his own name as a headline, he listed his occupation, “APOTHECARY,” all in capitals as a secondary headline. He did not merely peddle patent medicines that he had imported from suppliers in London. He also “strictly prepared” medicines in his shop, filling all sorts of prescriptions or, as he called them, “Family and Practitioners Receipts.” For those who desired over-the-counter remedies, he also stocked “a Variety of Patent Medicines.” His experience and reputation as an apothecary suggested that he could more effectively recommend those nostrums to clients based on their symptoms than Sparhawk the bookseller could. Bass also carried medical equipment, further underscoring his specialization in the field.

Not every customer needed the level of expertise Bass provided. Many would have been familiar with several patent medicines. For those customers who desired to make their own selections from among the products available on the shelves, Sparhawk (and Bass as well) simply made appeals to price and quality. That model differed little from patrons choosing over-the-counter medications at retail pharmacies or other kinds of stores today. For prospective customers who required greater skill and expertise from the person dispensing medications, Bass made it clear in his advertisement that he was qualified to address their needs.