July 7

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

Pennsylvania Journal (July 4, 1771).

“At the London Book-Store and Unicorn and Mortar.”

Like many booksellers, John Sparhawk also sold patent medicines.  He did not, however, do so as a side venture but instead cultivated a specialization in health and medicine when marketing the merchandise available as his “London Book-Store” in Philadelphia in the early 1770s.  To underscore that he carried “Drugs and Medicines of all kinds as usual,” he marked his location with a sign depicting a unicorn and mortar.  In selecting an image associated with apothecaries, the bookseller suggested that he did not merely stock a variety of elixirs but also possessed greater expertise than most shopkeepers, booksellers, and others who listed patent medicines among the many items available at their shops.

Sparhawk further enhanced that reputation by publishing an American edition of “TISSOT’s ADVICE to the People, Respecting their HEALTH” in the spring of 1771.  In describing the contents of the popular volume by Swiss physician Samuel-Auguste Tissot, first published in 1761, portions of the advertisement Sparhawk placed in the Pennsylvania Journal echoed the lengthy subtitle.  “THIS book,” the advertisement explained, “is calculated particularly for those who may not incline, or live too far distant, to apply to a doctor on every occasion.”  It included “a table of the cheapest, yet effectual remedies, and the plainest directions for preparing them readily.”  Originally published in French at Lyon, Tissot’s Avis au Peuple sur sa Santé became one of the bestselling medical texts of the eighteenth century.  By the time Sparhawk produced an American edition just ten years after the first publication of the book, it had already been through four editions in London.  The title page noted, though Sparhawk’s advertisement did not, that the American edition included “all the notes in the former English editions” as well as “some further additional notes and prescriptions.”

Sparhawk also mentioned that he stocked “Burn’s Justice, Blackstone’s Commentaries, and a general assortment of Books, on all subjects,” but he made Tissot’s manual the centerpiece of his advertisement.  Having invested in its publication, he certainly wanted the American edition to do well, but selling as many copies as possible was not his only goal.  After all, he could have published American editions of any number of books, but he chose Advice to the People to buttress his image as a knowledgeable purveyor of both books and medicines.  Publishing the book and associating it with “Unicorn and Mortar” was in itself a marketing strategy.

September 1

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

Sep 1 - 9:1:1770 Providence Gazette
Providence Gazette (September 1, 1770).

“At the Sign of the Unicorn and Mortar.”

On the first day of September in 1770, Benjamin Bowen and Benjamin Stelle advertised “MEDICINES, A full and general Assortment, Chymical and Galenical,” in the Providence Gazette.  They informed prospective customers that they could purchase these medicines “at the well-known Apothecary’s Shop just below the Church, at the Sign of the Unicorn and Mortar.”  In case that shop was not as familiar to readers as Bowen and Stelle suggested it might be, they named the sign that adorned it.  That landmark identified the exact location to acquire “the best of MEDICINES” and “CHOCOLATE, by the Pound, Box, or Hundred Weight.”

Newspaper advertisements placed by entrepreneurs like Bowen and Stelle testify to the visual landscape that colonists encountered as they traversed the streets of towns and cities in eighteenth-century America.  In addition to the “Sign of the Unicorn and Mortar,” that same issue of the Providence Gazette included directions to John Carter’s printing office at “the Sign of Shakespeares Head.”  Not all advertisers always included their shop signs in their notices.  Joseph Russell and William Russell placed an advertisement for gun powder and shot that did not make reference to the “Sign of the Golden Eagle.”  On other occasions, however, they were just as likely to include the sign without their name, so familiar had it become in Providence.

Very few eighteenth-century shop signs survived into the twenty-first century.  Evidence that the “Unicorn and Mortar,” “Shakespeares Head,” and the “Golden Eagle” once marked places of commercial activity and aided colonists in navigating the streets of Providence and other places comes from newspaper advertisements and other documents from the period.  Any catalog of such signs draws heavily from advertisements since colonists so often referenced them in their notices.  Even those who did not have shop signs of their own listed their locations in relation to nearby signs, suggesting the extent that shop signs helped colonists make sense of their surroundings and navigate the streets of towns and cities.