What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“A GENERAL ASSORTMENT OF MEDICINES.”
Lewis Johnson operated an apothecary shop in colonial Savannah, though his advertisement did not indicate if he compounded remedies onsite in addition to selling “A GENERAL ASSORTMENT OF MEDICINES” that included ingredients and readymade elixirs. For the latter category, he depended on customers’ familiarity with established brands, listing several popular patent medicines recently imported from London. These included “Daffy’s elixir, … Squire’s elixir, Bateman’s drops, Stoughton’s ditto, Godrey’s cordial, Turlington’s balsam, James’s powders strong and mild, and Anderson’s pills.” Johnson expected that patients were already familiar with the symptoms each of these medicines purported to relieve. Few products had so firmly established brand identities in the eighteenth century. In terms of name recognition and, sometimes, packaging materials, creators of patent medicines led the way in developing branding as an effective marketing strategy.
In addition to the half dozen or so pills and potions already noted, Johnson also carried the “Family Medicines of Dr. Hill’s,” several different elixirs associated with the same physician, each intended for specific indications. For instance, patients suffering from gout and rheumatism could purchase Hill’s “Elixir of bardana,” but those with colds, coughs, and even consumption should instead choose the “Balsam of honey.” Johnson listed nearly as many tinctures and elixirs from Hill’s “Family Medicines” as the other sorts of patent medicines combined. In this regard, Hill had worked out an effective system for increasing sales. Many competitors either marketed their medicines as cure-alls or specified an astonishing array of symptoms they relieved. Hill, on the other hand, associated particular medical problems with specific medicines formulated with unique ingredients considered especially efficacious for the circumstances. In so doing, he multiplied the number of potential sales possible for each customer.
The assorted remedies Lewis Johnson stocked in his apothecary shop would certainly look strange to modern consumers, but the experience of shopping there would not have been that much different than visiting a twenty-first-century retail pharmacy. Customers recognize certain brands. When feeling ill, they find comfort in selecting familiar remedies, often expressing preferences for one over another even when the competing brands combat the same symptoms.