What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“Numbers of Disorders have been cured by them.”
When John Priestly and Charles Besronett advertised the “convenient Bath and House” they constructed at Chalybeat Springs in Bristol, Pennsylvania, in the spring of 1769, they emphasized the medicinal qualities of the waters rather than promoting their establishment as a destination for tourists. Even though they claimed it was “needless to publish the Uses of these Waters,” Priestly and Besronett went into great detail about the benefits of partaking in a trip to Chalybeat Springs. The name itself came from the word “chalybeate” associated with mineral springs and medicines that contained salts of iron.
They proclaimed that “Numbers of Disorders … that had eluded the most powerful Medicines” had been cured as a result of visiting. Yet they did not ask prospective clients merely to take their word for it. To ward off suspicions of quackery, they reported that members of the Philosophical Society in Philadelphia (known today as the American Philosophical Society, one of the oldest learned societies in the nation) had conducted experiments and published the results the previous year. That “Analysis of these Waters” revealed that they contained “a Portion of Iron dissolved and suspended by a vitriolick Acid in Water, perhaps as pure as any hitherto discovered in any Part of the World.” Even if prospective clients did not understand all of the scientific terminology, the advertisers expected terms like “pure” to resonate. Priestly and Besronett directed prospective clients to consult with their own physicians who were more qualified to examine the analysis published by the Philosophical Society. Still, they presented opportunities for readers to reach their own preliminary conclusions. They anticipated that prospective clients would recognize, or at least be impressed by, allusions to “the celebrated GERMAN SPAW.”
In addition, Priestly and Besronett signaled that analysis of the beneficial results of taking the waters continued. “In Order more fully to ascertain the Virtue of these Waters,” they announced, “an exact Register is intended to be kept.” That register would included the names of clients, the maladies they sought to alleviate, and the effects of visiting Chalybeat Springs. Rather than entrust compilation of this register solely to patrons, Priestly and Besronett requested that they bring “a short Account of their Case, drawn up by the Doctor attending them.” Descriptions by physicians, especially when they invoked the specialized language of the profession, would imbue the register with greater authority, exactly the sort of legitimacy that Priestly and Besronett already demonstrated they valued when they trumpeted the analysis undertaken by the Philosophical Society.
Some advertisements from the period testify to a nascent hospitality and travel industry in early America, but Priestly and Besronett eschewed marketing strategies often adopted by advertisers who provided lodging, transportation, and entertainment. Instead, they focused almost exclusively on the efficacious effects of visiting Chalybeat Springs as a remedy for medical disorders. In that regard, their advertisement adopted an approach similar to the one in advertisements for “Jackson‘s Mineral Well” in the Boston Evening-Post a couple of years earlier. They could have also promoted a trip to the springs as an enjoyable leisure activity, but they instead privileged their attention to scientific inquiry as the primary means of persuading prospective clients to experience Chalybeat Springs for themselves.