• History Revealed

Turlington's Balsam of Life: Colonial Snake Oil or Miracle Cure All?

By Andrew Abbott (University of Central Florida) and Molly Kerr (History Revealed, Inc.)


Miracle cures for every ailment have existed for millennia. Sometimes the cures work, sometimes they are no more than snake oil meant to provide profit for the maker. In today's uncertainty of COVID-19, we all want a miracle cure to ease the social distancing and stay at home orders. While we wait, what lessons from snake oil's past can we learn?


In the 18th century, medicines could be hit or miss, partially because a single medicine often attempted to cure so many different kinds of ailments. This week, we take a look at one of those miracle cures sold at the Colchester store found in its 1760-1761 ledger.


Imagine it is 1761 in Fairfax County, Virginia. You feel a pain in your abdomen that will not go away. What can you do? You can see a physician to get your ailment diagnosed and treated, if you can afford it. You might check your handy copy of Every Man his own Doctor: OR The Poor Planter’s Physician, published close by in Williamsburg, Virginia. Or, you can visit your local store or apothecary and treat your condition with ready-made Turlington’s Balsam of Life.

Newspaper advertisement describing goods available for sale by George Gilmer.
A list of medicines and assorted goods arriving in Williamsburg advertised in the Virginia Gazette, 17 January 1751.

Turlington's Balsam of Life was a medicine patented by Robert Turlington in 1744. Turlington obtained his patent for the medicine's production from King George II, making Turlington its exclusive manufacturer.[1] With its 27 secret ingredients, Turlington claimed the medicine would successfully treat a wide variety of illnesses, including "kidney and bladder stones, cholic, and inward weakness." The patent also enabled him to specify who sold it, which included the Colchester store of the John Glassford Company managed by Alexander Henderson in Fairfax County, Virginia.[2]


From December 1760 – November 1761, Turlington's Balsam of Life was purchased thirteen times, with its price ranging from four shillings and four pence Sterling to eight shillings and eight pence Virginia currency.[3] While three purchases referenced the bottles being “large,” the overall lack of price variation implies the bottles were likely all the same size.[4] Surprisingly, the only price difference appeared in a single sale to Negro Jack, an enslaved carpenter, and that was at a slight reduction at eight shillings and six pence Virginia currency.[5] Given the high price, Jack's ability to afford a bottle of Turlington shows not only

Accounting of items purchased by Negro Jack from November 1760 to December 1761.
Account of Negro Jack in the Colchester store ledger, 1760-1761 (folio 114).

his strong desire to acquire the medicine, but has modicum of wealth and social standing in the community (he even carried a debt of over three pounds into the next year's ledger). The only more expensive item Jack purchased was two yards of striped and flowered lawn, a delicate linen most often used in handkerchiefs and aprons, for fourteen shillings.[6]

Lawn handkerchief
Embroidered lawn with bobbin-made net and lace handkerchief, 1740-1760. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

How did the Turlington's arrive in Colchester? On 12 July 1760, Alexander Henderson sent his “A Scheme of Goods for Mr John Glassford's Store at Colchester Virginia for 1761” to John Glassford aboard the Snow Nelly, Malcolm Crawford, Master.[7] In his list, Henderson included a request for three dozen bottles of Turlington's Balsam of Life at eighteen shillings per dozen, meaning he was able to provide a significant profit to the store with these single bottles.[8] His markup was over seven shillings per bottle proving money will always be made on cure alls!


While the letter book does not give us an exact date for when the requested patent medicine arrived at the store, we assume it happened sometime in April 1761 as the sales started to pick up on April 30, 1761, when Lewis Saunders traded a tobacco note for a bottle of medicine, as well as traces and tape.[9] Five bottles were sold in May (three for Ready Money) and another two in June.[10] Were the purchases due to the new imports, preventative, or because of a rash of “inward weakness” symptoms in the Colchester area in the summer of 1761? It will take additional research to be certain.

Illustration showing both sides of the Turlington bottle embossed with patent information
Image courtesy of Newspaper Archive

Asides for its sale at the store, what makes Turlington's Balsam of Life unique and especially interesting to archaeologists, is/was the unique shape of its bottle. One problem with patent medicines, especially in the 18th-century, was the marketing of a competing concoction under a similar name. Turlington's Balsam of Life suffered this fate, which quickly led to a decrease in sales. By 1754, the problem with counterfeit medicines led Turlington to come up with a clever way to ensure consumers they were buying his product: a distinctly, pear-shaped bottle.[11] He also provided a signed paper sleeve with descriptions of its efficacy. Turlington applied the same innovative spirit he used in initially creating his cure-all medicine to protect his intellectual property, leading to one of the more unique mass-produced glass containers found in colonial times. In addition to the innovative bottle shape, Turlington issued statements warning of the potential for counterfeit versions of his product, encouraging his customers to "…be extremely careful and particular, to examine unto each Bottle that he buys, that he may not be imposed upon by any pretended or false Balsam, which may be of the greatest Prejudice to the Health and Constitution of the unhappy Patient, instead of a perfect Cure."[12] In the Americas, he went so far to offer a twenty pounds reward for information that aided in the conviction of counterfeiters of his product![13]

Turlington Balsam of Life advertisement in Philadelphia newspaper with reward offered
Pennsylvania Journal or Weekly Advertiser, 7 June 1764. Image courtesy of GenealogyBank.

In a time before both significant medical advancement and regulations, patent medicines such as Turlington's Balsam of Life, were able to make claims that seem ridiculous or deceptive by modern standards. Yet, much like today, colonial Americans sought cost-effective ways to treat physical ailments without having to take additional money out of their pocket to visit a physician. Products such as Turlington's Balsam allowed them to do just that for many years as it continued to be advertised for sale in US newspapers until at least 1885.[14] Today, it remains an unofficial description of U.S.P. formula for Compound Benzoin Tincture – an expectorant used for chronic bronchitis.[15]


While we await a solution to the current health crisis, remember that we have access to tools and treatments not available in the past. Watch out for snake oil salesman promising a miracle cure!


NOTE: An earlier version of this post appeared as part of the website Economy of Goods written by Andrew Abbott in fulfillment of his University of Central Florida class, AMH 4110.0M01 – Colonial America, 1607-1763 (Spring 2017), and in partnership with History Revealed, Inc.

 

[1] Robert Turlington, "A Specifick balsam, called the balsam of life," British patent 596, January 18, 1744.

[2] George B. Griffenhagen and James Harvey Young (1959) Old English Patent Medicines in America, Contributions from the Museum of History and Technology, United States National Museum Bulletin 218, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.

[3] Alexander Henderson, et. al. Ledger 1760-1761, Colchester, Virginia folios 12, 22, 24, 30, 60, 68, 77, 78, 79, 114, and 133, from the John Glassford and Company records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., Microfilm Reel 58.

[4] Alexander Henderson, et. al., Ledger 1760-1761, folios 22, 24, and 133.

[5] Alexander Henderson, et. al., Ledger 1760-1761, folio 114.

[6] Florence M. Montgomery, Textiles in America 1650-1870, pp 275.

[7] Charles and Virginia Hamrick, 1999, Virginia Merchants: Alexander Henderson Factor for John Glassford at his Colchester Store (Fairfax County, VA), His Letter Book of 1758-1765 , pp 96; the description of the Nelly as a “Snow” and its master as Malcolm Crawford were distilled from reviewing “Virginia: Shipping Returns, 1759-1762.” The Snow Nelly arrived inwards to the port of Hampton and departed outwards from the port of the Upper District of the James River in 1761. (Shipping Return, The National Archives, Kew, CO 5/1448). Accessed 31 March 2020. http://www.colonialamerica.amdigital.co.uk/Documents/Details/CO_5_1448_00.

[8] Charles and Virginia Hamrick, Virginia Merchants: Alexander Henderson Factor, pp 94.

[9] Alexander Henderson, et. al., Ledger 1760-1761, folio 78. Note the account is for Goods in Barter, purchaser confirmed by comparing the sales date on the debit page to the deposit from the credit page.

[10] Alexander Henderson, et. al., Ledger 1760-1761, folios 12 (3), 22 (1), 68 (1) in May; folios 24 and 133 in June.

[11] George B. Griffenhagen and James Harvey Young, Old English Patent Medicines in America.

[12] Robert Turlington, “[No Headline],” The New-York Mercury, 22 September 1760. Readex: America’s Historical Newspapers, accessed November 14, 2017.

[13] Robert Turlington, “Turlington's Original Balsam of Life,” Pennsylvania Journal or Weekly Advertiser, 23 August 1764. GenealogyBank, accessed 31 March 2020.

[14] Using Newspaper Archive® and the search terms “Turlington's Balsam”, the latest advertisement for Turlington's Balsam of Life was included in an 1885 list of drugs and medicines available for sale at the Gettysburg shop of Dr. J. Gilbert. “Advertisement.” Gettysburg Star & Republican Banner, 27 January 1885, p. 4. Accessed online 31 March 2020, Newspaper Archive®.

[15] George B. Griffenhagen and James Harvey Young, Old English Patent Medicines in America; The dispensatory of the United States of America, 25th ed., Philadelphia, 1955, p. 158.

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