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.

August 17

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

Aug 17 - 8:17:1768 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (August 17, 1768).

“LEWIS JOHNSON Has just imported … AN ASSORTMENT of MEDICINES.”

When readers of the Georgia Gazette perused the August 17, 1768, edition they encountered an advertisement for “AN ASSORTMENT of MEDICINES, and sundry other Articles” that may have looked familiar. Lewis Johnson had placed his notice listing an extensive array of goods as soon as they arrived in his shop. The shipping news in the June 29 issue indicated that the “Ship Charming Sally, Peter Rainier” from London had “ENTERED INWARDS at the CUSTOM-HOUSE” on June 28. Johnson’s advertisement listing merchandise “just imported for Sale from LONDON, By the CHARMING SALLY, Capt. RAINIER” appeared in the Georgia Gazette the following day. It ran for three consecutive weeks, a standard length of time according to the fee structure for advertising in many colonial newspapers.

Johnson’s advertisement then disappeared from the next four issues before returning in the August 17 issue. Why did Johnson suddenly decide to insert his advertisement again? Just as its initial run coincided with the shipping news that confirmed the Charming Sally had just arrived with a cargo of goods imported from London, its return to the pages of the Georgia Gazette occurred when the shipping news reported the vessel’s departure. Among the other entries from the Customs House, the “Ship Charming Sally, Peter Rainier” had “CLEARED” and sailed for Martinique. For the past three weeks, the Charming Sally had been listed with those that had “ENTERED OUTWARDS” in preparation of leaving Savannah. Either from the shipping news or his interactions with the captain, Johnson would have known when the ship that transported his goods was leaving. The August 17 issue would be the last issue that carried information about the Charming Nancy provided by the Customs House. It was also Johnson’s last chance to underscore that he had indeed “just imported” his wares on a ship that had recently arrived in port.

His advertisement did not appear the following week, nor did the shipping news mention the Charming Nancy. Johnson had seized the opportunity when it presented itself, but withdrawn his advertisement when the news items printed elsewhere in newspaper made one of the appeals in his advertisement look outdated.

June 29

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

Jun 29 - 6:29:1768 Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (June 29, 1768).

“Has just imported for Sale from LONDON, By the CHARMING SALLY, Capt. RAINIER.”

To inform residents of Savannah and the rest of the colony that he now stocked “AN ASSORTTMENT of MEDICINES, and sundry other Articles,” Lewis Johnson placed an extensive advertisement in the June 29, 1768, edition of the Georgia Gazette. In it, Johnson listed everything from “Peruvian bark” to “West India castor oil” to “Spirit of lavender.” In addition to ingredients for compounding remedies, Johnson also carried several popular patent medicines, including “Bateman’s drops,” “Godfrey’s cordial,” “Turlington’s balsam,” and “Anderson’s pills.”

Johnson must have rushed his advertisement to press, though he may have written the copy in advance of receiving a new shipment of merchandise. Before listing his wares, he informed prospective customers that he “Has just imported for Sale from LONDON, By the CHARMING SALLY, Capt. RAINIER,” the dozens of items he enumerated. Johnson’s advertisement filled most of a column on the second page. The facing page featured a variety of advertisements and news items, including the shipping news for the previous week. Among the arrivals and departures at the port, on June 28 the “Ship Charming Sally, Peter Rainier” had ENTERED INWARDS at the CUSTOM-HOUSE” from London. The vessel that carried Johnson’s new inventory arrived the day before his advertisement ran in the Georgia Gazette. The shipping news that appeared elsewhere in the newspaper bolstered his assertion that he carried fresh goods rather than leftovers that had sat on shelves or in storage. This also suggests one manner in which readers engaged with newspapers; Johnson may have expected readers to move back and forth between news items and his advertisement to tell a more complete story.

The copy of this issue of the Georgia Gazette that has been preserved, photographed, and digitized provides other evidence about how some readers used newspapers. Four of the items in the left column have small checkmarks next to them. Why? This was not an indication for the printer or compositor to remove those items in subsequent insertions. All four appear throughout the entire run of Johnson’s advertisement. Instead, someone took note of those items in particular. Perhaps a prospective customer used the advertisement to make a shopping list. Perhaps a competitor marked items of interest. We will probably never know what those checkmarks signified, but they do testify that the advertisement garnered notice. It was not merely published and overlooked by readers of the Georgia Gazette.

September 23

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

Sep 23 - 9:23:1767 Cowper and Telfairs in Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (September 23, 1767).

“A LARGE ASSORTMENT OF GOODS.”

Lewis Johnson inserted an advertisement for his inventory of “A LARGE and COMPLETE ASSORTMENT of FRESH AND GENUINE MEDICINES” in the September 23, 1767, edition of the Georgia Gazette. The partnership of Cowper and Telfairs also placed an advertisement, informing potential customers of the “LARGE ASSORTMENT OF GOODS” they had imported from London. The notices, each listing an elaborate array of items, appeared side by side.

Although Lewis Johnson and Cowper and Telfairs each resorted to the common list-style advertisement to market their wares, the visual aspects of their notices distinguished them from each other. Cowper and Telfairs opted for a dense paragraph that extended two-thirds of the column, enumerating everything from “white, striped and ermine flannels” to “shirt buttons” to “broad and narrow axes” to “complete sets of china.” With some exceptions, they grouped their merchandise together by category (textiles, accouterments and accessories, hardware, and housewares). This made it somewhat easier for potential customers to locate specific items of interest (while also introducing them to others they may not have otherwise considered), even though the merchants did not include any sort of headers to indicate where one type of merchandise ended and another began. This dense list maximized the number of items Cowper and Telfairs presented to the public. While its format may have been somewhat overwhelming or difficult to read, it offered extensive choices to consumers.

Johnson’s advertisement, on the other hand, occupied the same amount of space on the page, but did not list nearly as many items. Instead, it divided a single column into two narrower columns, listing only one item per line. This left much more white space on the page, making it easier for readers to navigate through the merchandise. Like Cowper and Telfairs, Johnson introduced his list with the phrase “Amongst which are,” indicating that the advertisement did not include an exhaustive inventory. Both carried additional items at their shops. Given that he carried additional medicines, Johnson made a calculated decision to truncate his list in order to make it easier to read. Compared to the dense format of everything else on the page, the layout of his list likely drew the eyes of colonial readers, increasing the likelihood that they would take note of his advertisement.

Both list-style advertisements had advantages and shortcomings inherent in their appearance on the page. Although eighteenth-century advertisements lack the dynamic graphic design elements of modern marketing efforts, advertisers and printers did experiment with different layouts in their efforts to attract attention and incite demand among potential customers.

Sep 23 - 9:23:1767 Johnson from Georgia Gazette
Georgia Gazette (September 23, 1767).

September 20

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

Sep 20 - 9:17:1767 Pennsylvania Gazette
Pennsylvania Gazette (September 17, 1767).

“Many other Medicines.”

In addition to working as a steward and apothecary at the Pennsylvania Hospital, George Weed sold a variety of medicines from his home “at the Corner of Arch and Front-streets” in Philadelphia. Regardless of the malady, Weed seemed to have some sort of remedy for every patient: “an excellent Syrup to cure the Bloody Flux,” “a Balsamick Syrup, which cures Colds, Coughs, Shortness of Breath, Spitting of Blood,” and other symptoms of consumption, and “a Sudorifick Elixir, which cures the Gout and Rheumatism … by a gentle Sweat.” He also peddled “Fine Cordials for Infants,” but was also prepared “to cure the Venereal Disease in all its Stages” for adult patients

In the 1770s, the apothecary assumed the title of “Dr. George Weed” in various advertisements, though this may have been a courtesy initially bestowed by patients and associates who benefited from consuming or selling his medicines. In 1767, he proclaimed that he had been “bred to the Practice of PHYSICK and SURGERY,” deploying a phrase that often denoted some sort of formal education or apprenticeship. Whatever impression such wording suggested to readers, Weed may have been referring to his “more than 30 Years Experience” during which time he “had the greatest Opportunity to gain Skill, from his own immediate Observations, and the Advice of the ablest Physicians of this Province.” If potential customers misunderstood the nature of his training, that hardly mattered compared to the “greatest Attention and Integrity” he devoted to “the Relief of the Sick, the Wounded, Infirm and Distressed.”

Weed’s employment at the Pennsylvania Hospital came to an end in 1767. Once he found himself in the position of earning a living “in a more private Station,” he may have considered his previous affiliation with the hospital sufficient for taking the title of doctor if it meant convincing more prospective customers to purchase his nostrums and tinctures. Calling himself “Dr. George Weed” bestowed additional authority as he marketed the medicines he mixed to customers in Philadelphia and exported them to other colonies. Weed did not consistently use this title in advertisements he placed during the final year of his life, but the Pennsylvania Evening Post referred to him as “Dr. GEORGE WEED” when announcing his death on February 1, 1777. For nearly a year, his widow, Elizabeth, subsequently sought to mobilize the clout associated with “Doctor George Weed” as she advertised that she continued to sell medicines he prepared before his death.

Although the apothecary did not tout himself as “Dr. George Weed” in his advertisements immediately after leaving the Pennsylvania Hospital, as more time elapsed he may have realized the benefits of shading his qualifications just slightly in order to sell his drugs. Patients who published testimonials, shopkeepers who sold his elixirs, and newspaper editors who reported his death all eventually granted him the title of doctor, perhaps out of respect for his skill and experience if not in recognition of any particular formal training.