A Revolutionary Apothecary in Salem

Most of the students in my summer Research & Writing Seminar are pursuing local history topics related to the Revolutionary War and just after: conscription, taxation, the disruption to business, the involvement of African-Americans, Tories. This bunch seems to be drawn to that era like moths to a flame, and with the lack of local resources, we have had to be resourceful. Fortunately we have some good databases at Salem State, they are bound for repositories in Boston and elsewhere, and we’ve all enjoyed the wonderful Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr. site at the Massachusetts Historical Society. But once again, this foraging illustrates how hurtful the withdrawal of the Salem sources in the Phillips Library has been to our local academic and educational community. Supposedly the Library in Rowley will be open next week, and perhaps professional historians will journey up to explore its resources, but I fear it will remain inaccessible to most of my students. The lack of digitization still rankles, especially when compared to the wonderful Dorr site. I promised I wouldn’t post on PEM and the Phillips until we had some course-changing event, but obviously I can’t help myself. Still, enough: let’s move on to more responsible repositories.

Take care if you delve into the MHS’s Dorr database: hours will be devoured. The combination of Dorr’s own annotations and the quality and navigability of the images is addictive. My students are drawn to the news, the opinion, and the “big” topics, but I love the advertisements towards the end of the papers. If I were in their place, I think I’d write my paper on the Salem apothecary Jonathan Waldo, whose conspicuous advertisements crowd out everything for me, even the imminent war.

Waldo 1

Assize of Bread

Waldo 2The Essex Gazette of April 18, 1775, via the Annotated Newspapers of Harbottle Dorr, Jr. at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Jonathan Waldo (1756-1817) was a major Salem apothecary in the later 18th century, at one time in partnership with William Stearns and later on his own. His particular business mandated a large quantity of imports among his stock, as most British patent medicines were just that: British patent medicines. In the next (April 25) edition of the Essex Gazette, Waldo advertised goods imported in the last Ships from London: was that it for his business?

Waldo 8

Apparently not. Nearly all of his account books are in the Phillips Library, of course, but fortunately a classic secondary text, George Griffenhagen’s and James Harvey Young’s Old English Patent Medicines in America (1959) mined them to establish that Waldo’s business survived through the Revolution through a dual strategy of continuing to import apparently-contraband British medicine and concocting his own American substitutions. Waldo’s business endured even as he served as a Major of the Salem Militia during the Revolution and the major administrator of the restoration of the renamed Fort Pickering (previously Fort William) on Winter Island after. His post-revolutionary account book, digitized by Harvard University for its Countway Library of Medicine, confirms his thriving—and diversified—business. Indeed, the Revolution seems to have inspired “innovation” and reaped more profits for Waldo, who notes that the popular British elixir Turlington’s Balsam of Life was very dear even after the war was over, but “his own” recipe was increasingly popular with his customers due to its lower price.

Waldo Harvard

Waldo collage

Waldo Turlington's Balsam textWaldo, Jonathan, 1756-1817. Account book of Jonathan Waldo, 1788-1794 (inclusive). B MS b265.1, Countway Library of Medicine; Waldo managed to import a large supply of the popular Female Pills by Dr. John Hooper from London in 1777–along with a supply of Turlington’s Balsam of Life, Duke Digital Repository, History of Medicine Collections.

6 responses to “A Revolutionary Apothecary in Salem

  • salemwitchhouse

     This is absolutely amazing!  I would love to research seventeenth century Salem apothecaries. Have you ever come across any?Elizabeth Elizabeth Peterson City of Salem Parks, Recreation and Community Services Director, Witch House & Pioneer Village 310 1/2 Essex Street Salem, Mass. 01970 T/978.744.8815 F/978.741.0578 http://www.witchhouse.info

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  • Brian Bixby

    I’m more familiar with mid- to late 19th century patent medicines, primarily because the Shakers went into the business in a big way, raising herbs, preparing tinctures, and even developing their own patent medicines. Now you have me wondering how much the apothecary’s stock in trade changed between 1776 and 1876.

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    God love ya for guiding your charges through local history. Thanks for the heads-up on the Harbottle Dorr, Jr. site at MHS. (His name seems right out of Dickens.)

    Hoping to venture to Rowley when the archive opens …

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