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Northeast Historical Archaeology

Article Title

Turlington’s Balsam of Life

Abstract

Robert Turlington (1697-1766), weaver, patent medicine vendor, and entrepreneur left his mark in our archaeological record. Bottles embossed BY THE KING’S ROYAL PATENT GRANTED TO / ROBT TURLINGTON FOR HIS INVENTED BALSAM OF LIFE / JANUY 26 1754 / LONDON bear witness to a medicine marketed in distinctive packaging for close to 175 years. Turlington successfully used several strategies to market Balsam of Life, but was less able to protect Balsam of Life from imitators. After his death, his business survived until 1804. The distinctive bottles were still being made in 1919.

Turlington’s patent, dated 1743/44, listed 27 ingredients in an alcohol solution, all having perceived medicinal value at the time. Over time, the number of ingredients significantly decreased. His advertisements described numerous ailments treatable by Balsam of Life. In a highly competitive environment, Turlington, and others like him, with no formal medical training, selling pre-packed medicines to people he would never meet, was called a quack and an empiric. In his time, Balsam of Life was consistent with current medical practice and would have been considered appropriate for treating many of the disorders claimed in his advertising.

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