October 20

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

Essex Gazette (October 20, 1772).

“At his Shop at the Head of Hippocrates, in SALEM.”

In the fall of 1772, Nathaniel Dabney’s name would have been familiar to regular readers of the Essex Gazette.  The apothecary frequently placed advertisements encouraging prospective customers to visit his shop “at the Head of Hippocrates, in SALEM.”  A woodcut that depicted a bust of the physician from ancient Greece, often known as the “Father of Medicine,” atop a pillar adorned many of his advertisements.  Rather than appearing in the upper left corner, as was often the case for woodcuts, the narrow image extended the length of Dabney’s advertisements.  The apothecary first incorporated the woodcut into his advertisements in the fall of 1771.

A year later, he opted to publish an advertisement that did not include his signature image, though he continued to associate the “Head of Hippocrates” with his business.  In this advertisement, he relied on a double headline.  “Fresh DRUGS” ran in a large font on the first line, followed by his name in an even larger font on the second line.  The copy suggested that his previous advertising efforts had been effective.  The apothecary “RETURNS his Thanks to those Persons in Town and Country, who have been pleased to favour him with their Custom.”  He then informed current and prospective customers that he just imported “a few Articles, which compleat his Assortment in the DRUG and GORCERY WAY.”  He sold them “very cheap” in “large or small Quantities.”

Why did Dabney decide not to use the woodcut that became so familiar to readers and served as a logo for his shop?  Perhaps he decided that he achieved sufficient visibility and name recognition that he no longer needed to include it in every advertisement.  The cost of advertising may have also influenced his decision.  The colophon for the Essex Gazette stated that “ADVERTISEMENTS not exceeding eight or ten Lines are inserted for Three Shillings.”  Advertisers paid by the amount of space their notices occupied, not the number of words.  Dabney’s long and narrow woodcut and the copy that accompanied it extended far beyond “eight or ten Lines.”  The apothecary may have determined that he wished to keep his name in the public eye without assuming the expense of printing the woodcut in each advertisement.

May 26

GUEST CURATOR:  Kelsey Savoy

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

Essex Gazette (May 26, 1772).

“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.”[1] 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.”[2] Requiring training for physicians was an improvement that colonists enacted during the era of the American Revolution.

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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.

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[1] Whitfield J. Bell, Jr., “Medical Practice in Colonial America,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 31, no. 5 (September-October 1957): 444.

[2] Bell, “Medical Practice in Colonial America,” 453.