What was advertised in a colonial American newspaper 250 years ago today?
“Chymist and Druggist … at the Sign of the Unicorn’s Head.”
Isaac Bartram, “Chymist and Druggist,” offered a variety of goods and services at his “new Medicine Store” in Philadelphia in the spring of 1773. According to his advertisement in the May 5 edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette, he sold a “great variety of fresh Drugs and Patent Medicines, imported from the best houses in London.” Prospective customers would have been familiar with the patent medicines that Bartram listed in his notice, just as modern consumers recognize various brands of over-the-counter medications. Among other nostrums, the apothecary carried “Godfrey’s cordial, Bateman’s drops, … Walker’s Jesuits drops, Daffey’s elixir, [and] Anderson’s Lockyer’s and Hooper’s female pills.” For those willing to try equivalent products, like modern consumers who purchase generics, Bartram marketed “Wine bitters, of a superior quality to what is commonly sold under the title of Stoughton’s elixir.” He also stocked medical equipment, including syringes, vials, and surgical instruments, and prepared prescriptions “for physicians, or for family use.”
In addition to the copy, Bartram deployed an image to draw more attention to his advertisement. He indicated that he kept shop “at the Sign of the Unicorn’s Head.” Appropriately, a woodcut depicting a unicorn’s head enclosed within a border adorned the upper left corner of his notice, accounting for nearly one-quarter of the space occupied by his advertisement. This certainly increased Bartram’s advertising costs since he had to commission the unique image associated with his business and then pay for the additional space. Most advertisers did not invest in images for their notices, though a growing number adopted the practice in the early 1770s. Elsewhere in the same issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette, Stephen Paschall and son Stephen Paschall, as they styled themselves, included an image of a scythe, a sickle, and other sort of iron work available at their workshop “at the Sign of the Scythe and Sickle.” The initials “SP” marked one of the items. The Paschalls first published the image a year earlier. These images may have replicated the signs displayed by Bartram and the Paschalls, the only surviving visual representations of signs that colonizers glimpsed as they traversed the streets of Philadelphia.
Most advertisers relied solely on the text of their notices to encourage readers to visit their shops. Such was the case for Robert Bass, an apothecary whose advertisement for a “new and fresh Assortment of DRUGS and PATENT MEDICINES” appeared on the same page as Bartram’s advertisement. The woodcut depicting the Sign of the Unicorn’s Head certainly made Bartram’s notice much more visible to readers, prompting them to read about his wares and, in the process, quite possibly justifying the investment.