February 17

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

Pennsylvania Packet (February 17, 1772).

“The only true and genuine sort … is sealed with my seal and coat of arms.”

Beware of counterfeiters!  So warned Thomas Anderton in his advertisement for “TURLINGTON’s BALSAM OF LIFE; OR THE TRUE AMERICAN BALSAM.”  Anderton proclaimed that this patent medicine was recognized among Europeans, Americans, and “West-Indians” for its “true merit, of universal experience, utility and reputation,” superior to “all the other known Balsams.”  Continuing with the superlatives, Anderton trumpeted that Turlington’s Balsam of Life was “the best adapted in all cases, in every climate, to relieve the various ailments and diseases of the human body … that pharmacy, since the creation of the world, has produced.”  Tending to the quality of the product he marketed, Anderton asserted that he “faithfully prepared” the balsam “from a true copy of the original receipt, taken out of the Chancery-office, in London, where it is recorded on oath, when the patent was granted.”

Anderton claimed an exclusive right to produce and sell this extraordinary medicine in the colonies, yet that did not prevent others from distributing counterfeits.  He explained how consumers could distinguish the authentic balsam from imposters “which are to be met with every where.”  Those produced by Anderton were “sealed with my seal and coat of arms, and the direction bill given with each bottle is signed with my name in my own hand writing.”  Armed with that information, discerning customers could avoid being fooled by unscrupulous vendors who passed off inferior medicines as authentic Turlington’s Balsam of Life.  Some “very modest counterfeiters,” like Martha Wray and Mary Sopp, provided “direction bills” with the medicines they sold, but, according to Anderton, they “conscientiously avoid forging the proprietors names.”  Others, however, were more sophisticated in their efforts to hoodwink consumers.  They engaged in “forgery in a gross degree,” aided by “Printers and Engravers that have been employed to counterfeit the direction and seals.”  Anderton pledged to expose everyone involved, including “venders of such counterfeit rubbish,” at a later time, but for the moment warned consumers to be wary of products purported to be authentic Turlington’s Balsam of Life.  In exercising caution, consumers could safeguard their own purchases to their own benefit as well as prevent further injustices to the producer of the “TRUE AMERICAN BALSAM.”

February 21

GUEST CURATOR:  Mary Aldrich

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

Feb 21 - 2:21:1766 New-Hampshire Gazette
New-Hampshire Gazette (February 21, 1766).

“Assortment of the best of Medicine, among which are the following, viz. Burlington’s Balsom of Life.”

Robert Turlington’s Balsam of Life was an English nostrum that claimed to contain twenty-seven ingredients. It was patented in England in 1744 with the claim that it could cure kidney and bladder stones, colic, and inward weakness. Turlington’s pamphlet contained testimony from users that a multitude of other ailments would be cured because they took this medicine. In order to appeal to people, Burlington stressed in his pamphlet  the natural ingredients he used, specifically balsam, which is “a perfect Friend to Nature, which it strengthens and corroborates when weak and declining, vivifies and enlivens the Spirits, mixes with the Juices and Fluids of the Body and gently infuses its kindly Influence into those Parts that are most in Disorder.”

Patent medicines began in Europe and quickly became a hit, so much so that rivals were almost instantly a problem. Many people were too busy or too poor to go call the doctor; these “cure alls” were perfectly marketed to these people. And the multitude of products all advertising as being the best kept the price of them down to some extent.

For more, see George B. Griffenhagen and James Harvey Young’s Old English Patent Medicines in America.



Some histories of advertising in America suggest that little was advertised – with the exception of patent medicines – in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Adverts 250 Project, on the other hand, regularly demonstrates the diversity of goods and services marketed in colonial America, including, on occasion, the patent medicines that have given early American advertising such a bad reputation.

Mary discusses a 46-page pamphlet that Turlington published in England in hopes of convincing potential customers to choose his Balsam of Life over the medicines offered by a host of competitors. Colonial merchandisers sometimes distributed similar pamphlets, but did not engage in newspaper advertising for patent medicines to the same extent as in England because the American market did not have the same surplus of such products. Newspaper advertisements in colonial period tended to mention patent medicines only by name, without expounding on their contents or promised effects (as seen in today’s featured advertisement). This shifted a bit after the Revolution. In the wake of a greater number of newspapers being published, as well as many expanding to multiple issues each week, more space for advertising became available. Newspaper advertising for patent medicines became more extensive after the Revolution, sometimes including the same sorts of testimonials that Turlington used to promote his Balsam of Life in his original pamphlet from the 1740s.

In Old English Patent Medicines in America, Griffenhagen and Young describe advertisements in the colonies as “drab” compared to those in London and the English provinces. Note, however, that Josiah Gilman offered one innovative marketing method: “Customers may depend on being served as well by sending as if present themselves.” In other words, Gilman offered an early form of mail order shopping. Customers did not need to visit his shop in person. Instead, they could select which items listed in the advertisement that they wished to purchase and send for them.