Let’s buy: An Antipestilential Quilt. Guest post by Lynda Mugglestone

Many thanks to Prof Lynda Mugglestone (Pembroke College, Oxford) for a fascinating analysis of one of the earliest exhibits in the Art of Advertising exhibition. The language of advertising is the focus of Lynda’s chapter in the accompanying book, The Art of Advertising.

Manner of Wearing the Antipestilential Quilt, [1690]
Manner of Wearing the Antipestilential Quilt, [1690]. JJColl: Patent Medicines 16 (19)
For modern readers, the Antipestilential Quilts advertised in the eighteenth century might perhaps suggest a more powerful version of an anti-allergy duvet –– a tempting fusion of warmth and protection in which unwanted symptoms are warded off as one sleeps. The reality was, however, rather different. Quilts of this kind were not comfortable coverings for a bed but portable artefacts worn on the body (near ‘the Pit of the Stomach’, as the advertisement above helpfully clarifies). As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, they are pads or dressings, layers of material used in the aim of medical treatment, and often coated with an unguent or ointment. For the OED, quilts of this kind were last recorded in 1684. The Antipestilential Quilts of Georgian England display, as such, surprising longevity.

They are surprising in other ways, too. ‘The great Art in Writing Advertisements is the finding out of a proper method to catch the reader’s Eye’, Addison declared in the Tatler in 1710. This advertisement proceeds, however, by stealth. The heading suggests, at first glance, a set of instructions for use — a piece of informative prose rather than persuasion. We are told where the quilt is to be worn, and how we might secure it (‘with a Ribband or Fillet’). We might, it indicates, need another ‘Ribband’, too, to go round the body. We are also told the best way to dry it, and the requirements of weekly application. Only gradually are its persuasive claims revealed, along with its stated efficacy against ‘the Small Pox’.

‘An eruptive distemper of great malignity’, as defined by Samuel Johnson in his own Dictionary of 1755, smallpox was the most dreaded – and most infectious — disease of the eighteenth century. Thought to be implicated in circa 1 in every 5 deaths, it displayed two-yearly cycles of virulence between 1750-1800.  In the advertisement above, it is woven into the text on four separate occasions, an insistent reminder of what is at stake. Like Covid-19, it was an air-borne and viral infection, a disease of proximity and contact which accounted for a third of childhood deaths in the seventeenth century, and some 400,000 deaths a year across Europe in the eighteenth. Those who survived were scarred for life.  A ‘pit or scar made by the smallpox’ was a pockhole, another entry in Johnson’s Dictionary confirms. Yet, at least within this advertisement, immunity from pocks and disease alike was extended to those in possession of a quilt of this kind, and who don it as directed. ‘No person who has not had the Small-Pox, or is obliged by his Profession to visit infected Places, ought to be without it’, readers were informed. Anxiety and reassurance are carefully balanced in the narrative which unfolds. For those with an Antipestilential Quilt, infection holds no fear. The quilt is a tangible form of shielding, actively ‘fortifying’ those who purchase it. Conversely, those without such protection are both vulnerable and exposed. Deft, too, is the reference to ‘Convulsion’. For infant sufferers of smallpox, convulsions were a telling – and dangerous – symptom; the ‘Cradle’ referred to in line 19 evokes innocence (and the prospect of innocent suffering) alongside a calculated prompt to parental responsibility and guilt. Being quiltless is made a calculated risk. Across the advertisement, positive verbal constructions work to the same ends, reinforcing the stated efficacy of a product that ‘will preserve … from Convulsions’ and by means of which ‘the Blood purges itself of malignant Humours’ to leave the body at ease.  If further ‘Equilibrium’ is required, a little ‘Wine and Water’ is all that is needed.

We are, of course, in the realm of quackery rather than medicine proper. Even so, embedded medical diction draws on the Latinate and authoritative (‘insensible Perspiration’) as well on the time-honoured and traditional. As such, it deploys not the new-fangled inoculation — a word used after 1700 in relation to smallpox, and a process adopted by the pioneering Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in 1718 — but the familiar model of the bodily ‘humours’, and the salience of sweating out ‘ill humours’ such that the balance that illness has disrupted is restored. Superlatives (it ‘may be worn … with the greatest Safety’) as well as economy (with careful use, it will last for ‘twenty Years or more’) do their own persuasive work. Only in the final paragraph do the clinching details appear of where this extraordinary, and exclusive, commodity can be obtained, and by which the ‘Manner of Wearing the Antipestilential Quilt’ is extended to anyone who can afford it. We might begin therefore with apparent instruction in something we already own.  We end with the details by which this potent object of desire can be acquired, alongside the promise it brings.

Promise is, of course, a weasel word in its own right. On one hand, as Johnson noted, it is a ‘declaration of some benefit to be conferred’. Nevertheless, as he added, it is equally bound to ‘hope’ and ‘expectation’ – and to that anticipated but not by any means realized. Here, too, the Antipestilential Quilt proves exemplary. Purchase might, at least temporarily, allay concern but striding into ‘infected places’, even if wearing an Antipestilential Quilt, risked highly adverse consequences. Few, in this light, would be in use for twenty years. The projected discourse of economy was, quite literally, false, as, of course, were the protective merits urged upon potential consumers. As other advertisements for this product in the late eighteenth century make plain, the real promise of the Antipestilential Quilt relied on credulity and the power of belief. It might, as in the London Chronicle in 1773, hence be depicted as ‘an infallible ANTIDOTE against the SMALL POX’ but, ‘worn by way of an Amulet’, it is, in essence, a talisman against infection. In this further strand of advertising, the details of ‘insensible Perspiration’ were removed in favour of prominent scare-mongering. Amulets, like the processes of infection, work in invisible ways. Empirical evidence is provided by an experiment ‘tried in Paris’ in which medical ethics – and childhood safeguarding — are conspicuously absent. Instead, six healthy children ‘put to Sleep with persons who had the Small Pox in the most inveterate Degree’, present proof of efficacy (and pressure to buy). Given the protective immunity of a Quilt, three children retain ‘perfect Health’. Those denied ‘this Preservative’ are less fortunate, being ‘seized with this Disease within 48 Hours’. For susceptible readers, the moral of was plain. The text – and the sales pitch — conclude with directions for purchase, and a reminder to acquire only the genuine article, available from Mr Baldwin in Fleet Street whose monopoly was thereby rendered secure.


*On the historical background to smallpox in Britain, see S. R. Duncan, Susan Scott, and C. J. Duncan, ‘The Dynamics of Smallpox Epidemics in Britain, 1550-1800’, Demography vol.30 (1993), 405-23.

** Edward Jenner’s introduction of vaccination for smallpox at the very end of the eighteenth century gradually reduced mortality. Smallpox was formally eradicated in 1980.