What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago this week?
“A LARGE quantity of PATENT and FAMILY MEDICINES.”
Sometimes the advertisements in colonial American newspapers gave the impression that just about every purveyor of goods sold patent medicines. Apothecaries ran advertisements devoted almost exclusively to the drugs they stocked, including various patent medicines. Retailers listed patent medicines among the array of merchandise they sold. Even printers and booksellers advertised patent medicines in efforts to create additional revenue streams for their businesses. Most listed the names of the patent medicines they carried but did not elaborate on them. For instance, in the July 19, 1770, edition of the Pennsylvania Journal, Duffield and Delany, “Druggists; At Boerhaave’s Head,” stated that they sold “a variety of patent medicines, such as Godfrey’s cordial, Bateman’s drops, Anderson and Hooper’s pills.” William Richards peddled “Chemical and Galenical Medicines” wholesale and retail. In a short paragraph, he named fifteen familiar medicines, but did not describe the use of any except “Greenough’s tincture for preserving the teeth and gums.”
In contrast, Robert Kennedy and Thomas Kennedy ran an advertisement for “A LARGE quantity of PATENT and FAMILY MEDICINES” that almost filled an entire column. They listed eight patent medicines and provided short descriptions of the uses and effects of each. Most were so familiar that advertisers usually did not consider it necessary to offer so much detail. The Kennedys stocked all of the nostrums that Duffield and Delany named but did not describe; the “Druggists; At Boerhaave’s Head” expected that consumers already knew the purpose of each. For instance, Duffield and Delany merely listed “Bateman’s drops,” but the Kennedy’s created a headline for “BATEMAN’s DROPS” and followed it with this description: “The only remedy that some of the best judges make use of in severe vomitings and purges; given with greatest success in all kinds of fluxes, spitting of blood, consumptions, agues, smallpox, measles, colds, coughs and pains of the limbs and joints; they put off the most violent fever if taken in time, and gives present ease in the most racking torment of the gout, cholic and rheumatism, and what is wonderful, in all sorts of pains they give ease in a few minutes after taken.” The Kennedys devised an even longer description for Cook’s Worm Powders, introducing consumers to a “medicine never before imported” yet “at present in the highest esteem” in England.
Why did the Kennedys choose to publish such elaborate descriptions for such familiar patent medicines? With the exception of Cook’s Worm Powders, the general public already knew which patent medicines to take for various maladies. The length of the advertisement would have certainly attracted attention. It appeared on the same page as the notices placed by Duffield and Delany and William Richards, yet demanded more attention from readers. The Kennedys’ occupation may have also played a part in their decision to describe these patent medicines in so much detail. They sold them at “their Print Shop,” by which they meant a shop for purchasing prints to decorate homes rather than a printing office. They concluded their advertisement with a paragraph about “PICTURES” they also offered for sale. When it came to dispensing medicines, the Kennedys were not the same specialists as Duffield and Delany or William Richards. The descriptions may have been an attempt to justify their participation in that corner of the marketplace, a statement that they did not merely peddle patent medicines but also understood their uses and could aid customers in selecting the most appropriate remedies. They concluded the portion of the advertisement with a note that acknowledged they stocked patent medicines “in conjunction with their usual business” and pledged to sell “warrantable and well authenticated” items that they “import[ed] from the best hands only.” The Kennedys pledged to guard against frauds and counterfeits, selling only “what is genuine and the best of their kind.” They promised that “none need be afraid of their attempting to adulterate in these matters, especially so much out of their province.” The Kennedys acknowledged that selling patent medicines was different than selling prints, but consumers could trust them in those transactions. The offered the descriptions of the various patent medicines as a performance meant to demonstrate their knowledge about those products and their competence in offering the elixirs to customers.