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