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.

March 29

GUEST CURATOR:  Mary Aldrich

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

Mar 29 - 3:28:1766 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (March 28, 1766).

“TO BE SOLD by John Sparhawk, AT KITTERY POINT, Good HEMP-SEED.”

Hemp was a valuable commodity in eighteenth century America because it was used to make the ropes that were on every ship in this period. According to Ben Swenson at Colonial Williamsburg, all of the colonies grew hemp because of its ability to grow virtually anywhere. By the eighteenth century, the colonies of Virginia and Maryland grew the most hemp, but for farmers in New Hampshire it was still a valuable crop.

Farmers were profit driven and the best way to grow hemp to get nice long fibers to be used for ropes was to plant them close together. This limited the amount of female flowers the plants were able to produce, which is location of the greatest concentration of THC. (Colonists did know about the hallucinogenic properties of hemp.) Besides rope, hemp was used to make cloth for clothes and sacks, paper, and bed ticking, which kept the feathers or straw of the mattress from poking through. The cloth made from hemp grown in the colonies was especially valued when the colonists began to boycott goods from England. The growing and processing of hemp was already so well established that colonists were easily able to either grow more hemp or set aside a larger amount for the production of homespun.

The processing of hemp was difficult; after it was cut and rotted the waste had to be removed from the desired long fibers. The hemp needed to be rotted because it would loosen the fibers from the woody interior and the bark. The process of breaking the hemp separated the fibers from much of the waste. Afterward it needed to be beaten and scraped, then combed to remove the rest of the waste from the strands. Only then was the hemp suitable to be processed into its final product.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

At first glance today’s advertisement appears rather bland, but Mary’s analysis demonstrates why it is an appropriate sequel to yesterday’s featured advertisement for Barnabas Clarke’s shop “Near Liberty-Bridge” in Portsmouth. The two appeared on the same page of the New-Hampshire Gazette, Sparhawk’s about two-thirds of the way down the second column and Clarke’s filling the top half of the third and final column.

Clarke explicitly invoked many colonists’ sentiments about their relationship to Parliament when he listed the location of his shop, which would have called to mind the protests against the Stamp Act that occurred quite recently, less than three months earlier. Sparhawk, on the other hand, did not make reference to such difficulties, but, given the ubiquity of hemp in the colonial world, most colonists would have been aware that it was a resource for creating homespun. Sparhawk’s advertisement played off what colonists knew about nonconsumption and nonimportation even as it encouraged consumption of an alternate product. As the article from Colonial Williamsburg cited above explains, in the coming years newspapers increasingly encouraged growing and using hemp as a means of resistance as the imperial crisis intensified.

Mar 29 - Slave Ad 3:28:1766 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (March 28, 1766).

Given that the advertisements for yesterday and today each had connections to colonists’ understanding of liberty, it is worth noting a third advertisement that appeared on this page of the New-Hampshire Gazette, immediately to the right of Sparkhawk’s advertisement and a bit below Clarke’s. While Clarke peddled his wares “Near Liberty-Bridge” and Sparhawk offered a product that could help colonists reduce commercial ties with an oppressive England, readers of the New-Hampshire Gazette could purchase “A Negro Boy, about Fifteen Years of Age.” Once again, slavery and freedom were intertwined in the advertisements in the New-Hampshire Gazette.

February 2

GUEST CURATOR:  Maia Campbell

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

Feb 2 - 1:31:1766 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (January 31, 1766)

“A few Hogsheads of good MOLASSES and Jamaican SUGAR.  Also a few ANCHORS.”

What interested me about this advertisement was the trade connection with Jamaica. Jamaica was, at the time, a colony of the empire of Great Britain, and yet it does not seem that the North American colonies want to break trade with Jamaica, and understandably so. Goods from Jamaica were valued because of the inability to grow them in most of the colonies. Sugar was an especially popular import. People used sugar for cooking, baking, and for sweetening their tea. Sugar was an integral part of the colonists’ way of life.

I was also intrigued that the advertiser sold anchors along with the two sweet goods. It seemed out of place in the advertisement. Yet there was a place for anchors in colonial society. Merchants and fisherman, depending on the state of their anchors, would need to replace them. Furthermore, those new to seafaring would need to purchase anchors for their vessels.

Again, it is interesting that this colonial vendor chose to sell in two different categories, and yet they were profitable categories.

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ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY:  Carl Robert Keyes

Maia has selected an advertisement that testifies to the networks of exchange and commerce that crisscrossed the eighteenth-century Atlantic world. In noting that Jamaica was a British colony at the time (captured by the English from Spain more than a century earlier in 1655 and formally ceded to the British in 1670), she demonstrates an understanding of an extensive and integrated British empire that takes some students by surprise when they first enroll in early American history courses. The history of the colonial era and the founding of the nation cannot be told by exclusively focusing on the thirteen colonies on mainland North America and their interactions with England. Instead, as this advertisement indicates, colonial Americans consumed goods produced in other British colonies. But these were more than just commercial interactions; in the process of trading with each other they also shared news, ideas, and culture.

Historians continue to debate what/where/who constituted early America. Today’s advertisement argues for a Vast Early America and encourages a broad conception – and that’s before even taking into account who labored to produce “Jamaican SUGAR” for colonists’ consumption. The history of slavery and its connections to consumption lie just under the surface of this commercial notice.