J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, March 31, 2007

Dr. Baker's Brand Marketing

Starting with his first advertisement in America, dentist John Baker promoted his dentifrice as a preventive or cure for practically any tooth problem: gum disease, loose teeth, discoloration. Leaving Boston in 1767, Baker assured his customers that:

His Dentifrice, with proper Direction for preserving the Teeth and Gums, will be to be had at Mrs. Eustis’s, near the Town House, after he had left the Town. N B. Each Pot is sealed with his Coat of Arms, as in the Margin of the Directions, to prevent Fraud.
Using the Baker coat of arms (perhaps the one shown here, perhaps not) was not only a protection against “counterfeit drugs” but also a signal to customers that Baker came from a respectable family.

After he moved from Virginia to Philadelphia in 1778, Baker stated that “His well known Antiscorbutic Dentifrice for preserving the teeth and gums, may be had...at Messrs. Dixon and Hunter’s office in Virginia, with brushes and directions.” Dixon and Hunter were printers of one incarnation of the Virginia Gazette in Williamsburg.

The 14 Sept 1782 Independent Gazetteer of Pennsylvania included this ad touting Baker’s dentifrice and a new, related product called “Albion Essence”:
Begs Leave to inform the Public in general, and his Friends in particular, in the Thirteen United States, that he has just received a fresh Assortment of Medicines, which will enable him to prepare the genuine Antiscorbutic Dentifrice, and Albion Essence, for preserving the Teeth, Gums, Sockets, Breath, &c. &c.

This Essence and Dentifrice is prepared by himself, and warranted perfectly free from the least corrosive Particle or Injurious Property whatever.

It is replete with that Balsamic Quality, which prevents all defluxions, falling on the gums, or putrefactions that cause bad breath; It takes off the mucilaginous properties that dissolve the sockets of the teeth, and prevents the tooth-ach arising therefrom; it prevents obstructions and inflamations of the nerves and vascular parts of the teeth, and the head and tooth-ach arising therefrom; It concocts the vitiated juices, renders, beyond description, a juvenile fragrance to the breath, makes the teeth white and beautiful, causes the gums to grow firm to the teeth, makes the salivia pure and balsamic, eradicates the scurvy, and restores the gums to their pristine state, if the teeth and gums have been thoroughly cleaned by some skilful Dentist.

Its efficacy is well known to the principal nobility, gentry, and others, of France, Holland, Great-Britain, Ireland, and other principal places in Europe, also to some thousands in America.

N.B. Dr. Baker’s Albion Essence, and Antiscorbutic Dentifrice, is sold wholesale and retail, at his house in No. 45, Second-street, below the City Tavern; where all merchants, shop-keepers, masters of vessels, and others, may be supplied with any quantity to send to foreign parts, with proper printed directions. By attending properly to the directions, and observing the necessary precautions, people may not only free themselves from a great deal of pain, and preserve their teeth and gums throughout life, but also those of their children; as health, and beauty of the teeth, depend in a great measure of the care and treatment of them in early life.

Each pot of Anti-Scorbutic Dentifrice, has, to prevent fraud, his name on the cover, and sealed with his coat of arms, the same as the copper-plate arms on the lable of the bottle of Albion Essence.
Starting in 1785, the printer of the State Gazette of South-Carolina sold Dr. Baker’s products in Charleston. The next year, Spotswood and Clarke of Baltimore announced themselves as the exclusive source in Maryland. Other merchants in the big American cities carried Baker’s dentifrice along with others.

On 25 Nov 1790, the Newport Herald of Newport, Pennsylvania, offered this news:
MARRIED] On Sunday evening the 14th instant [i.e., this month], Doctor JOHN BAKER to Mrs MARY BONANG—a Lady of real worth.
Evidently Dr. Baker had married a wealthy widow, changing his circumstances. He seems to have stopped promoting his services as a surgeon-dentist. But Baker’s dentifrice and Albion Essence stayed on the market. Perhaps he was still making it; perhaps he had licensed it to someone else. Throughout the 1790s Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser ran ads like this, from 14 Aug 1793:
Antiscorbutic Dentifrice
and Albion Essence,
Just received, and for sale at
W. Poyntell’s stationary store,
No. 21, Second-street, between Market and
Chestnut-streets 3aw3w
I’m not sure what “3aw3w” meant, but it and similar codes appear in lots of Philadelphia newspaper ads from the 1780s on. I suspect they were how printers kept track of how often an ad had run.

I haven’t found out any more about Dr. John and Mary Baker, nor whether they retained “a juvenile fragrance to the breath.”


Anonymous said...

I would like very much to know how this dentifrice "eradicates the scurvy." Certainly scurvy (vitamin C deficiency)does loosen the teeth and plays hob with the circulation generally -- but was this before or after the British Navy decided to issue lime juice to its sailors to ward off scurvy? Could Dr. Baker have put some sort of citric item into the paste? Or was he just writing really good marketing copy?

J. L. Bell said...

In the 1700s, "scurvy" was a syndrome of symptoms rather than a disease with a specific molecular cause. So Dr. Baker might simply have been referring to loose teeth or scabbiness in general.

The British navy had discovered the beneficial effects of citrus fruits in 1747, though those didn't become a required part of sailors' diet until 1795. Therefore, it's possible that Dr. Baker did use some citric juice in his dentifrice—but would it have remained antiscorbutic?

And when it comes to pharmaceutical manufacturers, I never discount the temptation simply to write good marketing copy regardless of scientific results.

Anonymous said...

Read about scurvy once, it'll come up again within the week. I just read, in _The War for America_ by Piers Macksey, that "thirty years before the American War, Lind had proved the superiority of lemon juice as an antiscorbutic . . . yet throughout the war the application of the lessons [sic]was left largely to private enterprise. . . . The Admiralty continued to experiment with half-measures and useless nostrums. Sauerkraut did some good, extract of malt little and elixir of vitriol none (178, 179)." If even the British Admiralty, which had a strong interest in keeping its men healthy aboard ship, was not convinced of the effectiveness of lemon juice until 1795, I can imagine that colonists would also be attracted by various and perhaps cheaper approaches, including Dr. Baker's preparation. (My guesses about the nostrums above: sauerkraut certainly contains vitamin C, so would be effective; extract of malt would probably have no effect (I think it contains B vitamins only); and the vitriol, a corrosive, would at best produce scar tissue which might hold the teeth by its rigidity. How unpleasant.)

A side comment: Macksey's book is a fascinating perspective on the American Revolution. He is a Briton and does not see that period in British history as all about us Americans. The Empire seems to have had other things going on as well.

Anonymous said...

This thread of information about early American dentistry is excellent. As a student of US Army Dental Corps history it provided interesting assessment of the interface of my profession and it's military application. I plan to reference your blog site to others with my interest.

As to the dialogue about scurvy and John Baker's information about dentifrice, as a dentist I think J.L. Bell's assessment is valid. The state of the art (or science) knowledge about periodontal disease in the 1700s had not deciphered the distinction of loss of gum support from vitamin C deficiency and other causes, like those related to microbial origin and immune response.