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.

June 11

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

Jun 11 - 6:11:1767 Virginia Gazette
Virginia Gazette (June 11, 1767).

“JUST IMPORTED, In the Rachel & Mary, Capt. Anderson, a fresh ASSORTMENT of DRUGS and MEDICINES.”

At a glance, a significant number of eighteenth-century newspaper advertisements look much the same as many of their counterparts. This often has the effect of underplaying the distinctiveness and innovation of some commercial notices. In addition to inciting demand for the goods and services they sold, advertisers simultaneously pursued two goals when writing copy.

First, they sought to incorporate several common appeals (price, quality, choice, fashion, gentility) that they believed resonated with potential customers. They often deployed formulaic language in the process. While this gave the impression that their notices more or less reiterated others, it also demonstrated that advertisers understood the conventions of current marketing practices. It implied a level of competence that presumably transferred to other aspects of operating their businesses.

On the other hand, advertisers also attempted to distinguish their commercial notices from others in hopes of attracting customers or clients that might otherwise employ their competitors. The Adverts 250 Project regularly identifies and examines such innovations. As a result, some of the repetitiveness and standardization of eighteenth-century advertisements gets overshadowed.

Today’s advertisements help to remedy that. Published one immediately after the other, both advertisements for “DRUGS and MEDICINES” use the same language and structure: a notice that the wares were “JUST IMPORTED,” the name of the vessel that transported the goods and its captain (which allowed readers to compare to the shipping news and assess how recently they had been “JUST IMPORTED”), and a brief indication of that customers could choose among an array of merchandise (“A large ASSORTMENT” versus “A fresh ASSORTMENT” in these two advertisements). William Biers and Benjamin Catton posted advertisements that looked and read strikingly similar to each other.

Still, the notices had small variations. Biers doubled down on his appeal to choice by listing more than three dozen specific items. In contrast, Catton emphasized low prices when he pledged to sell “wholesale or retail, on reasonable terms.” Neither advertiser devised any sort of innovative appeal. Even in making decisions that created advertisements slightly different from the other, both Biers and Catton selected from among well-established elements of eighteenth-century advertising. Then, as now, many advertisements played on methods widely considered effective rather than attempting to create some sort of marketing sensation.

September 15

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

sep-15-9151766-boston-evening-post
Boston Evening-Post (September 15, 1766).

“All Persons may be supplied with DRUGS and MEDICINES of the freshest and best Kinds.”

In his capacity as executor of Thomas Aston’s estate, William Coffin, Jr., placed an advertisement asking “All Persons that have any Demand upon the Estate … to bring in their Accounts.” Likewise, “all those Persons that are indebted to said Estate … are desired to come and settle with said Executor.” Such announcements were fairly standard in eighteenth-century America.

The next portion of the advertisement, however, deviated from most estate notices placed by executors. Coffin announced that he “proposed to carry on the Business of the Shop as heretofore.” Aston had been an apothecary. Coffin marketed the remaining inventory of “DRUGS and MEDICINES of the freshest and best kinds” that had been imported from England the previous spring. Coffin was not simply clearing out existing inventory. He reported that “another [shipment of medicines] is expected to arrive this Fall from England.” In addition, he carried “Groceries and Dye Stuffs.”

Coffin and Aston’s relationship was not readily apparent in this advertisement, though it would have been well known to residents of Boston. Aston, an apothecary, was father-in-law to Coffin, a merchant and shopkeeper. Their familial connection tied together their business interests, even prompting Coffin to peddle the “DRUGS and MEDICINES” that had previously been his father-in-law’s specialty.

That’s not to say that Coffin lacked experience selling medicines. He began placing advertisements in Boston’s newspapers at least a decade earlier, though he initially promoted “CHOICE Philadelphia FLOUR” exclusively (Boston-Gazette, July 5, 1765). By the early 1760s he was also advertising goods imported from London, especially hardware. Throughout that period his advertisements indicated that he moved from location to location, setting up shop at various stores and warehouses in Boston. He continued to diversify the merchandise he sold, placing an advertisement for a variety of textiles, hardware, and groceries that he sold “At Store No. 12 on the Long Wharf” (Boston Evening-Post, October 22, 1764; Boston-Gazette, October 29, 1764)). In the same advertisement he noted that he “could be spoke with at Dr. Aston’s, next Door to the Governor’s.” It was only in subsequent advertisements that Coffin included “A general Assortment of Drugs and Medicines” among the inventory listed in his advertisements (Boston-Gazette, December 2, 1765).

Coffin almost certainly did not have the same expertise as his father-in-law, an apothecary, when it came to “DRUGS and MEDICINES,” but their familial relationship and mentorship by the elder man likely played a role in Coffin’s decision to expand his business interests.

March 26

GUEST CURATOR:  Elizabeth Curley

What was advertised in a colonial newspaper 250 years ago this week?

Mar 26 - 3:24:1766 Boston Post-Boy
Boston Post-Boy (March 24, 1766).

“A General Assortment of the freshest and best of DRUGS and MEDICINES.”

In this advertisement, Philip Godfrid Kast sold something a little different. Imported from the last ships from London (which is a way to guarantee their freshness), he sold “a general assortment of the freshest and best of DRUGS and MEDICINES.” I have never seen a pharmaceutical advertisement when looking through colonial newspapers for the Adverts 250 Project, which is why I chose this advertisement for today.

Kast characterizes his drugs as “Chymical” (which is the historical spelling of “chemical”) and “Galenical” (which is a medicine made from natural ingredients – plant or animal components – rather than synthetic components). Most prescription medications made today are of the chemical sort, since over time they have been proven to help more, and can be developed further to help more people.

What else further interested me was that this was a “dual” advertisement almost. Philip Godfrid Kast advertised for himself in Salem as well as for Dr. Stephen Huse in Haverhill, Maassachusetts. This is interesting because those towns are around twenty miles apart. Is it possible that these were the only two shops on the North Shore of Massachusetts that sold pharmaceuticals other than the port of Boston? Also, I noticed that Huse had the label of “Dr.” whereas Kast did not. This makes me wonder if they could possibly have been business partners or maybe Kast was more like a pharmacist today and Huse was more like a doctor today. Or maybe colonial Americans did not care as much about getting their medicines from such an official.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

I intended to feature this advertisement (from a previous issue of the Boston Post-Boy) last week before my Public History students resumed their guest curator duties, but when Elizabeth submitted her list of proposed advertisements for this week I held off for a bit. I figured it would be much more interesting to see what each of us thought was interesting and important about this advertisement.

What originally drew me to this advertisement? In early January I included another advertisement from Kast in my analysis of the featured advertisement of the day. The Kast advertisement I used, however, was a trade card rather than a newspaper advertisement. I posted it because the trade card included an image of Kast’s “Sign of the Lyon & Mortar.” Most colonial shop signs have been lost to time, but trade cards provide an alternate form of preservation of the image if not the material object.

Philip Godfrid Kast Trade Card
Philip Godfrid Kast’s trade card engraved by Nathaniel Hurd in Boston in 1774 (American Antiquarian Society).

All of the advertisements that Elizabeth examined this week have told us something about consumer culture and life in eighteenth-century America, but in at least one aspect some of her advertisers themselves were extraordinary. Recall that Mary Symonds, the milliner from Philadelphia, also issued a trade card for her business. (Elizabeth also included a trade card from William Breck, whose shop “at the Golden Key” was located near the shop promoted in the featured advertisement on another day.) Very few retailers, merchants, producers, or suppliers distributed trade cards in colonial America. Only a small fraction of newspaper advertisers experimented with advertising campaigns that utilized multiple media. I’ve been hoping that some of my students would have an opportunity to examine some of those advertisers, but I never would have guessed at the outset of this project that any of them in any single week would encounter two or more advertisers who used trade cards to supplement their newspapers advertisements.