GUEST CURATOR: Kelsey Savoy
What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Every Article in the Apothecary Way.”
Nathaniel Dabney owned a shop called “Head of HIPPOCRATES” in Salem, Massachusetts. In an advertisement from the Essex Gazette on May 25, 1772, Dabney announced he had a “fresh and full Assortment of Drugs, Medicines, Groceries, Instruments,” and more, indicating that he ran an apothecary shop. An apothecary shop in 1772 and modern pharmacies are very similar. That inspired me to find out more about medicine in the colonies during the eighteenth century.
Individuals who ran apothecary shops, who sold or administered medicines, did not require any education or licensure, nor did physicians. In “Medical Practice in Colonial America,” Whitefield J. Bell, Jr., notes that “only one in nine Virginia physicians of the eighteenth century had attended a medical school.” Physicians and apothecaries often learned from experience instead of formal training. This began to change in the colonies in 1772, the year Dabney posted this advertisement. Bell details the Medical Society of New Jersey dedicated to getting legislation passed that required physicians to obtain licensure by the courts to practice “after examination by a board of medical men.” The society’s goal was “to discourage and discountenance all quacks, mountebanks, imposters, or other ignorant pretenders to medicine, and not to associate professionally with any except those who had been regularly initiated into medicine.” Requiring training for physicians was an improvement that colonists enacted during the era of the American Revolution.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTARY: Carl Robert Keyes
Kelsey astutely observes that many eighteenth-century apothecary shops and twenty-first century retail pharmacies have much in common. Neither of them exclusively carried drugs and medicines, though selling remedies of all sorts gave those establishments their primary identity. Nathaniel Dabney (or Nathanael Dabney in other advertisements) made that clear when he selected Hippocrates, a physician from ancient Greece widely considered the “Father of Medicine,” to identify his shop.
In his newspaper notice, Dabney commenced the list of merchandise available at “the Head of HIPPOCRATES” with a “fresh and full Assortment of Drugs, [and] Medicines” and cataloged several familiar patent medicines from his “Assortment” of goods. He sold “Turlington’s original Balsam of Life,” “Bateman’s Pectoral Drops,” “Dr. Walker’s Jesuits Drops,” “Anderson’s and Locker’s Pills,” and “Hooper’s Female [Pills],” as well as other patent medicines less commonly mentioned in newspaper advertisements. Those nostrums were the over-the-counter medications of the day. Customers could consult with the apothecary of they wished, just like customers ask pharmacists in retail stores for advice today, but many also selected patent medicines based on their reputation and common knowledge about the maladies they supposedly relieved.
Yet Dabney, like other apothecaries, hawked other goods. His apothecary shop, like modern retail pharmacies, doubled as a convenience store where customers could acquire groceries, home health care equipment and supplies, and a variety of other items. In his advertisement, Dabney promoted “Groceries,” including cinnamon, cloves, raisins, and “Flour of Mustard, by the Dozen or single Bottle.” He also had supplies for the “Clothiers Business” and the “Painters Business,” mostly items for producing colors. In addition, Dabney sold medical instruments to physicians, a practice not followed by most modern retail pharmacies that focus on providing care to consumers. All the same, a visit to the Head of Hippocrates in 1772 likely would not have been that much different from a visit to CVS, Rite Aid, or other retail pharmacy today.
 Whitfield J. Bell, Jr., “Medical Practice in Colonial America,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 31, no. 5 (September-October 1957): 444.
 Bell, “Medical Practice in Colonial America,” 453.